Jim is a Justmeans staff writer for Energy, Climate Change, and Transportation. "From my years as a debater prior to undergraduate work in Massachusetts, I have written about science and technology, carrying this focus into graduate school, where I examined the history of Birmingham and the early twentieth century South from working class and progressive perspectives. In addition to work as ...
Gangsters, Banksters, and Sustainable Business
Whatever one's opinions in regard to Peak Oil, renewable energy, or the possibility of understanding contemporary contradictions in the political economy of power, those who read these pages might nod that seeing things in relation to each other is ever so sensible, such that we might ponder what are the parameters of sustainable business in a richly satisfying way. That said, in this week of recalling planes flying into buildings, a couple of points are apt to make.
These ideas revolve around a tension that M. King Hubbert, operating from the pulsing petroleonic heart of current day capitalism, understood very well. Long-term thinking often reaches different conclusions from short-term ideation. This is particularly apt for those who seek to evoke "business...better" in relation to the overarching operation of empire, and its concomitant drive toward war and domination.
One needn't spend one's life studying history to realize that, as a long lasting model, setting out to conquer all other cousins is a sorry proposition. "The rise and fall" is the curve of every imperial venture, whether that attempt is relatively stable, as was the case with Rome, or as evanescent as Napoleon's slog through the snows of Russia.
As Jared Diamond recently summarized,
|"One of the disturbing facts of history is that so many civilizations collapse. Few people, however, least of all our politicians, realize that a primary cause of the collapse of those societies has been the destruction of the environmental resources on which they depended. Fewer still appreciate that many of those civilizations share a sharp curve of decline. Indeed, a society's demise may begin only a decade or two after it reaches its peak population, wealth, and power. ...(D)eclines of societies tend to follow swiftly on their peaks. These combinations of undermining factors were compounded by cultural attitudes preventing those in power from perceiving or resolving the crisis. That's a familiar problem today. Some of us are inclined to dismiss the importance of a healthy environment, or at least to suggest that it's just one of many problems facing us-an "issue." That dismissal is based on three dangerous misconceptions."|
On the other hand, copious positive feedback loops indicate indubitably that profiting from the exigencies of carnage today is as close to a no-brainer as Blackwater's most recent name change in order to reattach the Pentagon feedbag to its corporate coffers. And, of course, this brief beat of riches 'beyond the bounds of avarice (were it only true)' is especially accessible wherever oil or its attendant fossil fuels bubble near enough to the earth's surface to add a few more million barrels to the world's carbon feedstocks.
This sort of dilemma--operating ethically and sustainably over a long period of time versus 'taking the money and running for the exit' now--ever constrains those who would practice corporate social responsibility. Were an easy answer apt, no 'dilemma' would threaten to gore the boards and other leaders of capitalist enterprise.
These essays have, in a halting and circumlocutory fashion, sought to offer guidelines in such issues. Social justice, community empowerment, and open transparency of process have been just a few of the benchmarks that have appeared in these pages.
Yesterday, readers met a fellow who has a well known name now among the Peak Oil cognoscenti: M. King Hubbert, who exemplifies a characteristic that is of key importance to those who would ascribe to the philosophy of "business...better." This is the capacity for change. Of course, attendants to the cultural conversation have the task of paying attention to reality, if they are to notice such alterations as Hubbert's shift from pro-nuclear to pro-solar.
Arguably, among the most surprising transformations in history occurred in the personage of Smedley Darlington Butler, whose storied career in the United States Marine Corps included the receipt of two Congressional Medals of Honor (CMH). Most recipients don't even survive one. I would be interested to know how many JustMeans afficianados are familiar with this tough 'leatherneck.'
That his official USMC biography called him "one of the most colorful officers" in the history of the Corps is telling to those who know this fellow's story, about which the Marine Corps biographers only mentioned the drab parts. Today's essay, on the other hand, is all about living color, from the hue of arterial blood to the cool green tones of money.
"From the halls of Montezuma" started my favorite song as a boy. Like most youngsters around my neighborhood, I glorified war despite the fact that my uncle nearly burned to death in Korea, and I was a child of some privilege for at least a portion of my early years, not long after my namesake, Uncle Jim, returned from his nearly crisped young life. Those who don't know are the only ones ever to celebrate war.
From all accounts, Butler was another who exalted an imagined epiphany of combat. His father, a Congressman from Philadelphia, sent his son to an elite Quaker school from which the boy absconded with himself at age 16 in order to enlist in the early stages of the Spanish American War.
He won a battlefield commission in Cuba, then returned to Pennsylvania and an Honorable Discharge. Within a year, however, he had reenlisted to honor his calling, and the next thirty years took him to outposts, and conflicts throughout the Americas and Asia, and onto the battlefields of Europe during WWI.
From his first far-flung assignment, traveling halfway round the world to join the forces charged with protecting embassy and business personnel during the 'Boxer Rebellion' in China, where he received the first two of many combat wounds, to his nominal duties in Washington as a retired Major General in the restive first days of FDR's Presidency, Butler appeared the exemplar of the patriotic hero. His troops, according to many sources, not only admired and respected him, but also literally loved him.
Both of his CMH's resulted from service in the Carribean, one from Vera Cruz in 1914, the other from "the Haitian Campaign" of 1915. Those folks who like dates, as I do, find that these humble numbers can excite a certain ardor if one is cognizant of enough of other time code with which to compare the new ones.
"Hmmmmmmmmm, 1914. War just broke out in Europe. But Wilson, the bigoted fraud, had not won reelection yet on the slogan, 'He kept us out of war,' while he plotted entry into the conflict. How in heck did Smedley, 'Old Gimlet Eye,' his troops called him, win not just one, but two CMH's--one in Mexico and the other in Haiti--before the U.S. even joined the fratricidal fray in Europe?"
The unfolding of that story, which takes us to the pounding black heart of oil and empire, involves a man of integrity, who silently learned lessons for thirty years as a conquistador that he proffered to us in under ten short years as a servant of peace. Anyone familiar with Butler may learn a thing or two: those unaware of this true American hero should pay careful attention, for lessons of blood and oil are on the way.
When this 'colorful' cousin enlisted, he spoke something like the following oath: "I, Smedley D. Butler, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States." In honoring that oath, he had no choice but to reject much of what his life had stood for.
A HERO TURNS HIS BACK ON THE SYSTEM
Smedley Butler pulled no punches: "I was a gangster for capitalism," he stated, simply and directly in hundreds of speeches that he delivered during the Great Depression. The title of his speech and of his most famous book, War Is a Racket, initiates this metaphor of criminality, from which he never deviated in the last years of his life.
"I Was a "Racketeer," he said to his audiences, continuing "It may seem odd for me, a military man to adopt such a comparison. Truthfulness compels me to. I spent 33 years and 4 months in active service as a member of our country's most agile military force -- the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from a second lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the bankers."
He goes into significant detail in his writing, and both his biographer and a historian who has collected his letters confirm that he witnessed the operationalization of empire from the front lines. Warriors see the political aspects of what they do very clearly, as veterans with whom I've corresponded continue to confirm. General Butler was no exception.
For instance, "I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents."
Do these assertions seem dubious? Treasonous? Unfortunately for anyone who feels a tad squeamish about confronting the evisceration of human rights and the trampling of democracy that United States business interests have practiced in the name of free enterprise and maximum profit, the historical record remains more or less unequivocal about most such cases. Butler offers us the truth. JustMeans energy readers might pay most attention to the mention of oil, but all of Butler's assertions are easily documented.
Mexico, the world's seventh largest oil producer, in many ways deserves compassion: "Pity poor Mexico; so far from God, so close to the United States," intoned Porfirio Diaz, the ruler whom the United States favored and whom the ten year long Mexican Revolution replaced.
A New York Times headline from around the time of Butler's first CMH announced "Tampico Operators to Ask Wilson's Aid." The article's lead sparkled with clarity. "Having failed to get any results from conferences with Secretary Bryan, representatives of all the oil interests in Mexico (with one small exception) decided last night to appeal direct to President Wilson for measures that will make it possible for their American employees to return to the Tampico oil fields. Among the 100 men who met...were officials of British, German, and Mexican companies whose employees were overwhelmingly American."
The Army's entire First Division and several Marine detachments, among which Smedley Butler mustered as ready, willing, and able to fight, through their oaths to the President, answered the oil men's call. The 'measures' that allowed a return to oil, business, and profit as usual included enough action for Smedley Butler to accept the second Congressional Medal of Honor for which his superior officer's nominated him.
Only with the approach of World War II, and German overtures throughout Latin America that abrogated the Monroe Doctrine in stealthy fashion did a 'Good Neighbor Policy' become fashionable enough to allow Mexicans to control their own oil. A 1938 article from Harper's Magazine reported this. "President Cardenas's course with land and labor made it a foregone conclusion that sooner or later he would collide with the British and American petroleum companies which between them controlled the bulk of oil production in Mexico. Oil has long been a hot subject in Mexico. The quarrels between the Mexican government and the American petroleum companies almost led to American armed intervention in 1927, a calamity averted by the diplomatic intervention of Mr. Dwight Morrow. The current controversy came to a climax on March 18, ]938, when President Cardenas signed the act by which the properties of seventeen American and British companies were seized by the Mexican nation. For this act Cardenas is variously praised as the savior of the Mexican people and damned for his irresponsible and high-handed ways."
Lordy, we might as well be back in Harlan County: 'Which side are you on?' Smedley Butler spoke from experience, including the experience of burning metal fired into his body, including the experience of inflicting death and destruction on fellow humans, including an evolving consciousness that he was acting, not in 'defense of the Constitution' from 'enemies' either domestic or foreign, but in defense of Capital from any abrogation whatsoever.
How about Standard Oil in China? Weren't Americans there to help defend the Chinese? Disillusionment need not be disheartening. Letting the scales of denial fall away can be very liberating. A soldier under Butler with the Fourth Marine Regiment in China, who recollects his deployment there in a very ripe old age, states without artifice, "There were American citizens over there which we protected, but most of our duties were strictly guard. Standard Oil Company was over there and we used to guard them. Then we had our own areas that we had to guard. We had to guard the hospital. The navy hospital. And so it was one day on and two days off. The first thing you do is buy a teakwood chest. Then you go down, you start buying this and buying that, whatever you could afford. The ivory was the most important thing that we could buy. It was real, real inexpensive there and you could buy like a Hamilton wrist watch was like a Rolex today."
Chinese men worked for next to nothing, so that not even the famous Marine bed-making discipline was any longer necessary. Butler and his young men may have been there on something of a shopping holiday, but the support that we offered to another of history's notorious hoodlums, Chiang Kai-shek, whom Mao's armies would drive out of the mainland two decades later, was an imperial decisions. This diarist recalls that Japanese, British, Portugese, Dutch, and American representatives and soldiers basically carved up Shanghai's business district for themselves, offering protection to Chiang from the marauding Reds in the process.
That such actions emanated from policy and standard procedure, and not from any ad hoc reaction to out-of-control events, historians of all stripes attest. One example of this is "Principles and Profits: Standard Oil Responds to Chinese Nationalism, 1925-1927," by David A. Wilson, who notes that anti-communism took a back burner to protecting investments and capital goods; Marines could undertake 'measures' as necessary in this regard.
Wherever an observer focuses, albeit in particular where oil oozes forth, soldiers have acted as guardians, in general, not of freedom or democracy or any other measure of communal well-being, but of the perquisites of wealthy investors and their corporate collectivity.
Jack London, happenstantially and much more drunkenly, followed many of the same paths that Butler did in his career: Mexico during the U.S. incursions there prior to WWI; China and Korea in the early part of the century. He also came to detest the drum beat of war.
"The good solider never tries to distinguish right from wrong. He never thinks; never reasons; he only obeys. If he is ordered to fire on his fellow citizens, on his friends, on his neighbors, on his relatives, he obeys without hesitation. If he is ordered to fire down a crowded street when the poor are clamoring for bread, he obeys, and sees the gray hairs of age stained with red and the life-tide gushing from the breasts of women, feeling neither remorse nor sympathy. If he is ordered off as one of a firing squad to execute a hero or benefactor, he fires without hesitation, though he knows the bullet will pierce the noblest heart that ever beat in human breast. A good soldier is a blind, heartless, soulless, murderous machine."
These words bring bile to the breath. They shiver the timbers of the stoutest soul. Could London be right, even about someone as heroic as Butler? We'll now turn to what the estimable officer had to say about the 'institution' of war that formed the basis for his calling, though his career turned out to be gangsterism, pure and simple.
We might recall that his most popular book bore the title War Is a Racket. Another best-seller ended up being To Hell With War. In both volumes, his thinking appeals more to reason than does London's dark sensuality of disarticulation and destruction, but his thinking is as congruent with the great socialist writer as sunrise is with sunset.
The purpose is imperial. "Since the Revolution, only the United Kingdom has beaten our record for square miles of territory acquired by military conquest. Our exploits against the American Indian, against the Filipinos, the Mexicans, and against Spain are on a par with the campaigns of Genghis Khan, the Japanese in Manchuria and the African attack of Mussolini."
The point was to guard profit by siphoning off national treasure. "In other words this means that the War Department and the government, under the present law, is at the mercy of the rulers of industry and finance. The contracts of the War Department for future war supplies exist -- industry will have its own way about profits." And the 1930's seem like a playground compared to the present tense, in which sixty cents of every tax dollar goes to the death surcharge.
Butler warns us; perhaps we might lend an ear. "Add up these phases of the war racket we harbor and encourage, and the result is a pretty picture. We support armed forces that have all the evils of the old-time European prussianized military systems." What the Bible says about the wages of sin ought to resonate, unless we've hardened our hearts and blinded ourselves to the coming mayhem that continued arrogance makes certain.
Smedley Butler on Interventionism ended up being 'isolationist' instead of internationalist. But perhaps the cure, if the present pass is any guide, is at least as bad as the disease. Again, Butler is relentless.
"War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses. I believe in adequate defense at the coastline and nothing else. If a nation comes over here to fight, then we'll fight. The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag."
He sums up, echoing Jack London's chilling indictment. "Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. ..." I repeat, "War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives."
The upshot of this sort of investigation, if it is to be of any practical use to those who want to stay afloat while practicing a sustainable business model, must ever be about opportunity. "Where, dear Jimbo, can I invest if you tell me that big business is often a decidedly thuggish affair?"
And of course that's a good query. My own answer would tend to come down on the side of social democracy, but I'm not militant about my rationality; I merely try to remain reasonable. And, in truth, especially in times such as those that we confront today, opportunity abounds.
I have had two commercial real estate agents tell me with the sort of hungry look in their eyes that I associate with Golden Retrievers in the presence of a 'chicken finger,' that "anybody with cash today could make a fortune." I have no doubt that they speak accurately.
So what about microfinance? What about the works of Amartya Sen? He champions the idea not only that doing well is possible while doing good, but also that doing well without seeking social beneficence is nigh on impossible, on anything but the shortest time line.
Certainly, plenty of people who need loans, in an environment of transition such as this one, might through common sense and a commitment to community 'turn a profit' with a local energy enterprise. Doing 'business...better' has to begin with a recognition of past patterns that, as Butler averred with such passion and graphic detail, constituted racketeering, clearly not a pathway to sustainable profits, albeit drug-running and arms dealing are ever the source of quick scores.
More than ever, the capacity to live well may today depend on a willingness to serve; and those with the resources to proffer therefore have undoubtedly the largest chance to live a good life today. But this cannot result merely from that 'highway to hell' of doing as we've always done but meaning well.
This willingness to 'mean well' at the same moment that one carries on in a decidedly imperial, and imperious, manner led William Appleman Williams to entitle his masterwork The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. Williams prefaces the history with an aptly historical reflection.
"The tragedy of American diplomacy is aptly symbolized, and defined for analysis and reflection, by the relations between the United States and Cuba between April 21, 1898 through April 21, 1961. The eruption of two wars involving the same two countries in precisely the same week provides a striking sense of classical form and even adds the tinge of eeriness so often associated with tragedy."
From the false friendship of the invasion against Spain to the presumptuous brutality of the Bay of Pigs, punctuated by thugs and drugs and dictators and whores at the beck and call of empire, this tragedy continues, half a century of vituperation by the most powerful nation in history against an island that was willing to keep fighting for its freedom to say no to capitalism and casinos. These sorts of echoes are everywhere, if we'll listen.
Today is the week of 9/11/2001, a tragedy that took the lives of thousands and has resulted in wars that have decimated civilian populations, enriched grafters and BlackWater BlackHawks, and defined, some would say, the beginning of a long American decline. I'll hope not, but I cannot help but feel a sense of loss if we cannot gain a measure of self-recognition. Responsibility is impossible in the realm of denial.
My wife's grandfather died thirty seven years ago about this time of year. Assassins, contractors in essence for the Central Intelligence Agency, ITT, and the copper conglomerates, cut him down in front of his house. He refused to join the coup against the democratically elected socialist President, Salvador Allende. My wife's forebear had also taken an oath. He was the naval attache, one who refused to go along and so paid the price.
Allende himself died in a hail of bullets. Ten to twenty thousand Chileans, perhaps more, 'disappeared,' deseparacidos entering the lexicon of imperial murder for all the ages in the aftermath of the coup that our government approved and orchestrated. The date on which the mayhem of this perfidy began? The date to which this false promulgation of democracy and freedom in the guise of murder will forever be tied? September 11, 1973.
How many JustMeans readers are aware that two of our last four Presidents were father and son? I'd hope a vast majority would say, "Well, DUH!!" How many of that nearly universally clued community could state the primary basis for that family's political influence? Once again, I am optimistic that a substantially greater number than half would answer Alec Trebek with the appropriate interrogatory, "What is oil?"
But I would wager more wealth than I have ever had that equally huge numbers of my readers would be unable to state accurately how the President's Grandfather established his fame, which is as a prominent banker, before he became a U.S. Senator from Connecticut. And I'd bet everything, up to my life anyhow, that almost none of my readers would recognize that this eminent ancestor also stakes a claim to infamy, in being associated with a plot to depose Franklin Delano Roosevelt and, if necessary, execute him, so as to bring about a coup d'etat along the lines of Italy or Germany.
As matters stand, Smedley Butler, hero of two Congressional Medals of Honor and fiercely loyal to his oath as a Marine, was the erstwhile go-to guy in this conspiracy. Bankers and investors, according to Gerald MacGuire, who approached Butler in 1933, just after Roosevelt took his own oath of office, stood ready to anoint Major General Butler, at the head of a 500,000 strong Bonus Army of disaffected veterans, as FDR's replacement.
Smedley Butler didn't believe him, thinking the feint some sort of con game. But then, just as MacGuire had predicted, a hyper-reactionary group, the American Liberty League, came into existence, including many of the backers whom MacGuire had sworn wanted Butler to assume the reins of command.
In addition to representatives of the DuPont, Morgan, and Heinz family fortunes, among many others, Prescott Bush was prominent among those who purportedly were preparing to decapitate the state if Roosevelt did not agree to appoint Butler as his Chief Administrative Officer. As MacGuire had indicated, he returned to get Butler's reply to this sally to sully our hero's honor.
Butler recalled telling him, " "My interest is, my one hobby is, maintaining a democracy. If you get these 500,000 soldiers advocating anything smelling of Fascism, I am going to get 500,000 more and lick the hell out of you, and we will have a real war right at home."
Our retired head of the United States Marines then went to the nascent House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee and detailed what he had learned. The records of that testimony have largely, and conveniently from the perspective of the impugned privileged conspirators, disappeared, but dozens of contemporaries of Butler documented the General's allegations, and substantial circumstantial and documentary evidence also substantiates the contention that a fascist coup was indeed the plan of the hyper rich in the early 1930's.
Hundreds of solid historical sources exist to corroborate such a view, at the same time, of course, that many professional historians are, to say the least, extremely skeptical of Butler's claims. I'd recommend that JustMeans readers take a half hour to listen to a 2007 British Broadcasting Corporation documentary investigation into the issue.
I'd also suggest that anyone interested in the matter take a look at the History News Network's charge to Distinguished City University of New York Professor Herbert Parmet to examine the matter. He concluded, after extending the corroboration of the accusation to include Prescott Bush's ongoing collaboration with Nazi business until the mid 1940's, that "at least to some extent, it did happen, even if the details are far from clear. As with all such examples of infatuation with power, or the control of power, or the interests of sheer survival, the story should be told. As John F. Kennedy once said, 'let the chips fall where they may.'"
Smedley Darlington Butler, a stalwart child of wealth and privilege who ended up calling for the leadership of the masses, in truth received the Congressional Medal of Honor three times; he turned the first one down because he didn't believe he deserved it. He was nominated for a fourth CMH. Truly, he is a hero.
For JustMeans followers who dream of sustainable business models, the dose of 'get real' that Butler serves up is sobering and essential. "There isn't a trick In the racketeering bag that the military gang is blind to. It has its "finger men" (to point out enemies), its "muscle men" (to destroy enemies), its "brain guys," (to plan war preparations) and a "Big Boss," (super-nationalistic capitalism)."
And what we've got is a desire for a better world. We can only fulfill that desire through looking the struggles and travails that we confront straight on, for which purposes General Butler is required reading, to say the least.
9/11: Public Domain
Smedley Butler: The Smedley Butler Society
Soldier: JR Price
Cardenas: Public Domain
Jack London: Hitchster
Berlin Spandau: Deutsches Bundesarchiv
Amartya Sen: Public Domain
Salvador Allende glasses: Richard Espinoza
Prescott Bush: public domain
Swastika: public domain