John Buell

Fortress USA Can’t Save Us

Can fortress America save us by sealing our borders against immigrants and drugs? Even as it acts, however, another intruder may be signaling the futility of a Maginot Line mentality. Drugs, impoverished migrants, and virulent epidemics may represent blowback of a corporate globalization system the US has endeavored to impose throughout the world. Our future safety may hinge on broader international efforts to recognize that system’s technological hubris and curb its social and ecological excesses.

Just days before swine flu became the story du jour, Secretary of State Clinton warned that “The criminals and kingpins spreading violence are trying to corrode the foundations of law …” She promised a militarized response that would include Black Hawk helicopters.

Problems along the Mexican border have long been severe. NAFTA and other corporate trade agreements have been associated with an increase in inequality and unemployment in Mexico, occasioning desperate efforts to cross our border in quest for jobs. The US may now no longer offer jobs, but other opportunities remain. Hampshire College Professor Michael Klare points out that with fifty million workers worldwide likely to lose their jobs: “From Mexico to Africa, Russia to China, the pool of the desperate and the bribable is expanding exponentially, pointing to a sharp upturn in global crime.”

Supplying illicit drugs may be one of the few safety valves remaining. Sporadic capture of drug “kingpins” only makes this trade more lucrative. Klare reiterates a theme even most mainstream economists have long acknowledged. Since the demand for addictive drugs is notoriously inelastic, drug seizures “drive up the street price of drugs …” This only increases “profits for those who succeed in eluding the police. … Given the general economic environment, this is certain to prove a self-perpetuating system that will continue to lure ambitious or desperate young men into the drug trade.”

High drug prices also give drug suppliers an enormous incentive — and resources — to lure others. Paradoxically, stronger enforcement and sanctioning of these drugs, especially during desperate times, may lead to increased use.

The US unfortunately is reluctant to change its self-defeating approach to drugs. Especially during turbulent times we justify our own way of life and favored modes of escape as virtuous by portraying those who are different as dangerous and evil. Thus mainstream culture eagerly cites the violence associated with imposing prohibition on other cultures and drugs as proof that these outsiders are inherently evil. It is not surprising that crack cocaine, a drug associated with inner city blacks, is treated more harshly than the power version favored by middle class professionals. Whether Obama can end these blatantly racist disparities remains to be seen.

With swine flu, however, isolation, as the administration now recognizes, brings no security. University of California, Irvine Professor Mike Davis points out that US strategy had originally been to contain a pandemic through “rapid responses of medical bureaucracies, independent of the quality of local public health.” Davis identifies three problems here: 1) Pathogens can be literally on the next flight to the US. 2) The US has done little to fund adequate surveillance even within its own borders. 3) More fundamentally, contemporary animal husbandry throughout the world is a product of the same made-in-USA policies that brought us the international financial meltdown. Access to our markets or aid from the US-backed IMF is conditioned on deregulating agriculture and animal husbandry. As with finance, the world now flirts with disaster. Davis again: “Animal husbandry … has been transformed … from old-fashioned pig pens to vast excremental hells, containing tens of thousands of animals with weakened immune systems suffocating in heat and manure while exchanging pathogens at blinding velocity with their fellow inmates … “the continual cycling of viruses ... in large herds or flocks [will] increase opportunities for the generation of novel virus through mutation or recombinant events that could result in more efficient human to human transmission.”

We may yet avoid catastrophe. But however this potential pandemic unfolds, it should awaken us. We must reconsider the rules of the global economy we impose on ourselves and others. Citizens everywhere seek basic economic security, value free time for their families, and crave some mode of escape from the cares of the day. If we can learn to appreciate our growing diversity, perhaps we can collaborate in limiting ecological excesses and curbing corporate ruthlessness.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2009

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