This is an archive of the former website of the Maoist Internationalist Movement, which was run by the now defunct Maoist Internationalist Party - Amerika. The MIM now consists of many independent cells, many of which have their own indendendent organs both online and off. MIM(Prisons) serves these documents as a service to and reference for the anti-imperialist movement worldwide.

Pre-911 book: Amerikans will reap what they sow

Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire
by Chalmers Johnson
New York: Henry Holt, 2000, 268 pp. pb.

Review by MC206
3 Mar 2003

Chalmers Johnson finished this book over a year before September 11, which is when most Amerikans first heard the term "blowback." In it, he lays out the reasons why Amerika's chickens were bound to come home to roost--as indeed they did. The book is packed full of details about what Johnson calls "imperial overstretch," similar to something MIM talked about in its founding documents back in 1983. Thus it remains a useful read today, although Johnson is a bitter anti-Communist (more specifically: an anti- Maoist) and Blowback is partly an (unsuccessful) attempt to replace the Communist critique of imperialism with a bourgeois critique.

"Blowback," of course, refers to "the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people. What the daily press reports as the malign acts of 'terrorists' or 'drug lords' or 'rogue states' often turn out to be blowback from earlier American operations."(p.8) To Johnson's credit, he does not limit his definition of the term to Amerikans, noting that while Amerikans have not yet felt the impact of the Asian economic crisis caused by Amerikan speculators and IMF meddling, Indonesians already have.(p. 17)

Obvious cases of blowback include U.$. support for the Afghan mujahideen who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 and then flew two airplanes into it in 2001.(p. 13) Johnson provides a service by discussing some of the lesser- known cases of blowback--or potential blowback.

Okinawa. Johnson starts his chapter on the U.$. military bases on Okinawa with a partial list of the daily wrongs Okinawans suffer at the hands of Amerikan troops, from the high rape rate (pp. 34-37, 41-44) to prostitution (p. 35) to traffic accidents (pp. 42-47) to the constant interruptions of school lessons by low-flying jet aircraft.(p. 47) He then ridicules the reasons the United $tates gives for basing over 200,000 troops in Japan--most of them in Okinawa. "Pentagon theorists ... are like the New Yorker who spreads elephant bane around his apartment and then extols its benefits because he encounters no elephants. The strategy 'works' because the threat is illusory."(p. 63)

Arms sales. Well, sort of illusory. In fact, as Johnson outlines in a section on the immense Amerikan arms industry (pp. 85-94), the "forward deployment" of U.$. troops or sale of arms to a client state often proves a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, Amerika "expands the NATO alliance eastward in part in order to sell arms to the former Soviet block countries... with certain knowledge that doing so will... elicit a hostile Russian reaction. This Russian reaction then becomes justification for the expansion."(p. 92) Or the Pentagon sells advanced missile and submarine technology to Taiwan, provoking the Chinese either consciously or unconsciously, blinded by its desire to make a buck.(p. 89)

For Johnson, the fact that "mercenary" Pentagon arms profiteers have turned the world into a powderkeg is a result of the erosion of civilian control of the military.(p. 222) (We Maoists would simply say that's what happens when you put profit before basic survival rights.) He notes that a behemoth military with controlling economic and political powers contradicts the thinking of Amerika's "founding fathers."(1) "George Washington's Farewell Address now reads more like a diagnosis than a warning: he counseled Americans to 'avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments, which under any form of government are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to Republican Liberty."(p. 71)

China. Unlike the many grandstanding racist nincompoops in Congress, who can always be counted upon to thump a table and prattle on about the threat from "Red China" if votes or weapons contracts are at stake, Johnson recognizes that China has been a capitalist country since Deng's economic reforms--even if it hasn't adopted Anglo-Saxon "laissez-faire" capitalism. As such, Johnson argues, Amerika should deal with it as any other capitalist competitor and not as an implacable ideological enemy. Saber rattling over Taiwan, bombing Chinese embassies, promising to keep troops in Korea even after reunification, etc.--all these things make war with China in the short- term more likely, not less.

Like Bruce Cumings, who sees economic cooperation between north and south Korea as the path towards peace and reunification,(2) Johnson sees economic cooperation between China and Taiwan as the best guarantor of peace and prosperity. There is some truth to this--certainly Johnson is correct that Amerikan military and economic intervention provides the biggest impetus towards war in the region.

However, again like Cumings, Johnson overestimates the ability of the south Korean or Taiwanese economic model to bring development and prosperity to larger and larger areas. Johnson correctly argues that the relative successes of the Japanese, Taiwanese, and south Korean economies depended on subsidies from the United $tates and access to its markets. He also correctly notes that "China's products will never enjoy the virtually unrestricted access to the American market and its sources of technology that Japan and others enjoyed in exchange for their support during the Cold War."(p. 146) He does not put these two points together to reach the correct conclusion, namely, the Taiwanese path is not open to China--or just about any other "developing" Third World country. The U.$. economy, as big as it is, can only absorb a fraction of the world's exports

Johnson admires both the Chinese revolution of 1949 and Deng's capitalist reforms--consistent with the aspirations of the national bourgeoisie--while he despises Mao. He repeats some of the more hyperbolic slanders against the Maoists in China, which aren't worth rebutting here. Instead, we direct readers to our critiques of "The Black Book of Communism,"(3) our classic essay "Myths about Mao,"(4) and our Tibet FAQ page.(5)

As for Johnson's rosy perspective on capitalism in China, we'll make two quick comments. First, an increase in GDP does not mean the standard of living for the broad masses is improving. Social problems such as unemployment, prostitution, and drug abuse, absent in socialist China, have returned. Johnson himself writes, "An estimated one hundred million people [ca. 8% of the Chinese population], more than the entire population of Mexico, are now adrift in China, largely migrants from the interior looking for work in rich coastal areas."(p. 152) Second, capitalist economies are trapped in the boom-bust cycle. Present growth cannot be extrapolated indefinitely. Readers interested in a detailed critique of Deng's economic reforms should check out "The Political Economy of Counterrevolution in China," available from MIM.

Indonesia. Johnson uses Indonesia as a case study in how the Amerikan military's "joint training" programs amount "to little more than instruction in state terrorism."(pp. 72-84) He discusses the violence that proceeded the ouster of Suharto in some detail, arguing that "much of the violence had been organized and deliberately provoked by the armed forces, probably in order to create the enough of the look of chaos to make a military coup seem a plausible and acceptable step."(p. 76) In particular, the military covertly organized simultaneous attacks on "forty different Chinese-owned shopping malls spread around more than twenty-five kilometers... The Indonesian scholar Ariel Heryanto has observed that [these events] were not 'racially motivated mass riots' but 'racialized state terrorism.'"(pp. 81-82) This happened less than a year after Indonesian special forces "received twenty-six days of American instruction in 'military operations in urban terrain.'"(p. 78)

The Asian economic crisis of 1997 hit Indonesia hard, leaving 20% of the population unemployed and doubling the number of people living on less than a dollar a day to one hundred million.(pp. 74, 211-212) This collapse discredited Suharto and provided the impetus for the coup plans and Amerikan support for the ouster of its erstwhile puppet.

Johnson's explanation of this crisis is closer to MIM's than he might like to admit: it was due to currency speculation by First World finance capitalists and capitalist overproduction, which Johnson recognizes is relative overproduction. "This is not to say that all the barefoot peoples of the world might not want to wear athletic shoes or all the relatively poor people who might someday be able to afford a television set or automobile are satisfied. But for now they are too poor to be customers."(p. 197) The IMF, "essentially a covert arm of the U.S. Treasury," exacerbated the crisis through stupidity, arrogance and greed.(pp. 210-213)

To prevent future crises, Johnson proposes "fixed exchange rates and controls on the movement of capital."(p. 225) MIM supports similar reforms in its platform, tying exchange rates to a standard basket of goods.

Johnson predicted dire consequences if the economic situation in Indonesia remained unchanged. "If Indonesia is allowed to stagnate, living off food handouts from the Americans, it is quite possible to predict that Islam, which until now has shown its tolerant and broad-minded face throughout most of the country, will turn militant and unplacable. This, in turn, would guarantee the end of American influence (much as it did in Khomeini's Iran) and it would greatly complicate Australia's foreign policy."(p.84) The recent bombing in Bali proved him correct.

Johnson admits to his past as "a spear carrier for empire," specifically as a "China watcher."(pp. ix-xix) He knows the basics of communist critique of imperialism and borrows from it heavily, although he tries to give it a "back to Adam Smith" spin.(pp. 201-202) He still stubbornly insists that Amerikan capitalism is not driven "to exploit other nations for economic gain or simply to dominate them politically or militarily,"(p. 31) perhaps out of naiveté or the "good sense" not to bite the hand that feeds him. As a result, he ends up looking backwards, much like the petty-bourgeois critics of imperialism Lenin scolded.(7)

Still, for those looking for an introduction to the contradictions facing the Amerikan empire, especially in east Asia, Johnson's book is worthwhile.

1. Amerika's "founding fathers" had their own theory of "blowback," which Amerika's current leaders refuse to heed. See "U.$. military budget would have angered Amerikan 'founding fathers,'" MIM Notes 274, 15 Jan 2003.
2. See MIM Notes 276, 15 Feb 2003.
6. See "Imperialism," chapters III and IX.

Buy This Book

Back to bookstore Home page