Jean Ziegler: Paths of hope

Book Review

by Dr Peter Küpfer

Published in 2017, the book by the sociologist from Geneva is very personal, full of commitment and in attack mode as usual, and despite alarming facts and figures cautiously optimistic.

In his latest publication Ziegler, Swiss politologist and activist, summons the achievements of a whole life committed to human rights and dignity. Fittingly, the subtitle of his book is: “Wins and losses in joint battles”. In addition to many disturbing facts and figures Ziegler refers mainly to his own experiences. His journeys, interviews and insights which he gained while travelling the world as UN special envoy for the right to food (from 2000 to 2008), later as a member and acting vice president of the United Nations human rights council advisory committee (since 2008) are at the centre of the book. The couragious adversary of modern globalised capitalism reflects and judges his interactions and experiences in these two areas of his activities in a critical, sometimes self-critical manner, always pointing to the social-historical and political developments resulting in what the authors calls in his clear, often deliberately emotional language: a disgrace - gross injustices which characterise our economic life worldwide. In his acknowledgements in the foreword and epilogue, the author joins the long list of committed intellectuals and political activists. Many of them payed the ultimate price for their lifelong struggle for human rights and dignity. This includes Sergio Vieira de Mello from Argentine. The former High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations had been a friend of the author. In 2003 he was assassinated by a Jihadist bombing squad while visiting Baghdad together with 21 of his collaborators. Prior to the murder Vieira de Mello had worked hard to improve the situation of the civilians in conquered Iraq, at a time when relations with the United States were at their lowest point. When he tried to help both sides just like Henry Dunant at the battlefield of Solferino he may well have spelled his own death sentence.

Disturbing figures

Ziegler argues that the Third World War has already been going on for some time and has claimed many lives, more than the toll of human lives of both the First and Second World Wars combined. Frontlines today were no longer running between countries and political alliances alone, Ziegler claims. In their essence wars waged today were economic wars of the rich against the poor. Oligarchs running perfect exploitation machines unrestrained by any ethical norms form a worldwide alliance, maximising their profits in a globalised market economy without caring about the victims of their raids. Whole empires and states have become dependent on oligarchs mainly by debts just like the Holy Roman Empire of Germany during the days of the Fugger dynasty. On the other side Ziegler sees the peoples mainly of poor countries all over the world, delivered to the oligarchs without protection. Modern predatory capitalism claims many victims - due to malnourishment, lack of water and medical care one child dies every seven seconds worldwide, Ziegler blames this on the consequences of unlimited economic warfare waged by an unscrupulous elite against the rest of humanity. A handful of super-rich people who would easily fit into one bus control more than half of all financial resources world-wide today. The remaining eight and a half billion people share the other half, which means that many of them struggle to make ends meet for themselves and their families for just another day. Worldwide “85 ultra-rich people own more than the 3,5 billion poorest inhabitants of our planet”, Ziegler writes (p. 301).

The establishment of the UN …

All this contradicts the principles and goals of the United Nations completely, as the author repeatedly points out. He traces their roots back to the most fateful year of the Second World War, 1941, when Winston Churchill and US President Roosevelt sketched their core sentences on board the American battleship Augusta off the stormy coast of Newfoundland. Those would later become the essence of the preamble to the United Nations Charter and its main organisations. Back then four principles had already been clearly defined which constitute the primary goals of the UN to this day. Considering the terror and meaninglessness of the suffering during the Second World War, as it is laid down in the UN Charter, the member states the number of which has grown to 193  in the meantime, vowed to combine their efforts to accomplish that in future

  • the scourge of war, which twice in the first half of the 20th century had brought untold sorrow to mankind, would be outlawed for ever
  • faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, would be reaffirmed all over the world regardless of class, nationality, race, beliefs, political or economic standing
  • conditions would be established under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law (such as the right to self-determination of all nations) can be maintained social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom would be promoted world-wide

… and their impotence

Any observer of the saeculum, who reads newspapers and follows the news in radio or television will basically agree with Ziegler’s damning judgement of the factual influence and the noble goals of the United Nations: their weakness is undeniable. The author confesses that he himself had overestimated the capabilities of the United Nations before he had started to work for them as a high official. Today the principle “might makes right” is prevalent worldwide, as the author emphasises, rather than the principles of peaceful conflict resolution. The author blames mainly the fact that the UN, especially due to the unchecked power of the Security Council, has never been anything else but a tool in the hands of the countries that won the Second World War. Their right to veto may thwart any peace keeping effort or condemnation of warmongers even if that would be perfectly in line with the principles of the UN, just like this right had been abused by both United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War to block each other's initiatives, thereby causing unspeakable suffering of the peoples living in their respective spheres of influence as they had been defined on Crimea in 1945. The author lists all armed interventions carried out by the two super powers over many decades, both ignoring the principles of the UN. On the Communist side these were most of all the Korean war, the Vietnam war, the interventions in Afghanistan, Chechnya and the support of various independence movements in Africa and South America. On the Western side these were countless armed interventions of the USA in their “backyard” of the Middle and South American “Banana republics”(a derogatory term which nevertheless has its justification), where any regime supporting the interests of all people rather than just those of US corporations would be “changed” and replaced by US backed authoritarian puppets. The aims of all those interventions were always the same: protecting or regaining privileges of American big corporations who ran factories there in connection with highly corrupt local financial elites (Chile under Allende is viewed as a prime example here by Ziegler).

Against the imperial idea

Ziegler mobilises facts, figures and developments to back up the main thesis of his book: Thinking in categories of global dominance, creating huge power centres which stand against peaceful conflict resolution, the conviction that only empires can secure calm and quiet relations between people on earth, best of all one world empire – this prevails as the leading dogma in many political and even philosophical “think tanks” to this day. Main witness for this way of thinking is, according to Ziegler, Henry Kissinger, former political adviser to the US administration of Richard Nixon, later secretary of state. Kissinger viewed and propagated the USA as the ascending power on its way to become the ultimate global empire. Where Spain, the Netherlands, later Great Britain used to rule the world, with gold they had robbed and used to amass horribly effective war machines, the USA as the main profiteers of the Second World War and only remaining super power emerging from the Cold War had developed into the new empire with aspirations to world dominance. But the real empire, as the author keeps reiterating, are not only the political-military power blocks but the internationally connected financial empire which acts cynically and ruthlessly and forces its will on all states in an even more unforgiving way than previous power structures. Its agencies, such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, hedge-fund consortia and big stock exchanges as well as the legions of governments worldwide who were turned into their economically dependent puppets and corruption-prone elites all function according to its laws. Many examples from recent history illustrate this thesis in Ziegler’s book. Especially during his mission in Palestine, where he was never afraid to point out systematic negligence, boycott, active intimidation and suppression of the Palestinian population by the Israeli government he witnessed first-hand what he experienced as a range of repression measures (including targeted assassination) against those who insist on the ideas of the UN Charter and the respect of its human rights protection for all people on earth. Ziegler illustrates the devastating effects of what he refers to as the worldwide economic war of the rich against the poor with more facts and figures from countries in Africa and Latin America. All over the world people are systematically murdered or forced to flee, sometimes en masse, because big international corporations want to own their land in-order to expand their latifundia or mining facilities. So far about the “struggles lost”, which Ziegler mentions in the subtitle of his new book.

What is the alternative?

Where are the counter-forces? Ziegler sees two main sources of hope against the grim outlook, although the author is at times almost driven into despair himself. One is a strengthened and thoroughly reformed UN who takes its own principles seriously at last and has the necessary means to enforce those if need be. The UN must no longer be a tool in the hands of the victorious World-War II powers but need to evolve into a real institution with real powers which serves all member states on an equal footing, who strive for peace on this earth. Ziegler therefore places his hopes not only on corresponding reforms in the functioning of the Security Council (abolition of the de facto and de jure dictates of the victorious powers of the Second World War in the Security Council, increase in the number of members and genuine democratic decision-making in the Security Council according to the majority principle), but also on the fact that the UN must have a right and even a duty to ultimately armed humanitarian action “as the bearer of the universal common good” vis-à-vis governments that systematically violate the human rights of their citizens (p. 293). Kofi Annan entrusted his successor with these main proposals to reform the UN. Now everything depends on “… whether the international civil society may exert enough pressure in-order to force the states to adopt this reform as scheduled by Kofi Annan.” (p. 293). There is a second beacon of hope for Ziegler, one which he trusts even more for the future: the emerging “planetary civil society”, which demands respect for the human rights all over the world with ever increasing determination: “Countless social movements, trade unions, non-government organisations and individual activists” (p. 304) were demanding respect for the human rights worldwide today. “The new planetary civil society doesn’t follow any party line or central committee. […] The ruling worldorder is based on competition, dominance and exploitation. The driving force of civil society is the awareness of identity between all people. Their practice is shaped by solidarity, reciprocity and complementarity between individuals”, Ziegler writes (p. 304). Ziegler refers to Kant and his basic axiom that all people worldwide continue to share the same capacity of reason to this day. This means that all of them long for peace and actually need to do so because otherwise they act against their own interests. This axiom requires an end to thinking in the categories of empire. “Let us remember Immanuel Kant. Any act of inhumanity against a fellow human being destroys humanity within me.” (p. 304) Ziegler counts on the ability of the people to create more dignified conditions for themselves. He sees signs of hope in all places where people point out to their governments and self-appointed elites with determination, that people are not there to serve states and empires but the other way around. In other words - that institutions, states and governments ought to serve the people who trust in them, because they have the duty and responsibility to aim for their welfare. And this is true on local, regional, national and global levels. Ziegler counts on this beacon of hope and in principle one should agree. What else could we count on?
* * *
Ziegler continues to be an outspoken Marxist to this day. He endorses Marxism with fervour, but also with pride. He sees a continuous line running from the beginning of the UN via the Cold War, Cuba, the Vietnam war, the illegal interventions of the USA in their middle and Latin American backyards, the US civil rights movement, the youth revolt of the 1960ies, Sartre, the independence struggles of former colonies, the upheavals in Hungary and Czechoslovakia up to the collapse of the Communist empire and the new world order of global capitalism. His main enemy remains the “classical” one, regardless of his various disguises: It is the general Marxist Popanz of “capitalism”. Although Ziegler characterises the old Soviet Union as an empire in his book and does criticise their imperial strategies and subsequent mistakes and crimes now and then, there is a lack of critical analysis of the old Soviet elites and their lines of thought and what this means for the still Marxist author. While he is hoping for reason and an emerging “planetary civil society”, Ziegler’s world view is still full of adversaries and enemies. Terms such as “our enemies”, “our foes” are legion in his book. It is doubtful whether people longing for peace worldwide will ever succeed within this framework of categories. Certainly, he who wants to kill me cannot be my friend. I will mobilise my forces of defence against him. From the laws of logic follows that aggressive antagonism will beget more struggles (class struggles presented itself often as war, and not as pure self-defence in either intention, appearance or weaponry), the struggles create more suppression and from this anything but a planetary civil society will develop. The unspectacular path of Switzerland, to assist with active mediation in conflicts (Good services of Switzerland in international conflicts), may serve as an example for entities beyond Switzerland, including the United Nations. It is questionable whether their current reformation into an armed world police force for “humanitarian missions”, modelled after the wars in the former Yugoslavia or in Iraq, will succeed to bring peace in Syria. In situations of imminent or already virulent wars it is crucial to support whatever serves peace. This is how Henry Dunant started when he delivered first aid to soldiers of both sides of the frontline at the battlefield of Solferino. From this the Red Cross developed.    •

Ziegler, Jean: Der schmale Grat der Hoffnung. Meine gewonnenen und verlorenen Kämpfe und die, die wir gemeinsam gewinnen werden. München (C. Bertelsmann Verlag) 2017, 320 p., ISBN 978-3-570-10328-9 (Paths of Hope. Wins and losses in joint battles). Title of the original French edition: Chemins d’espérance: Ces combats gagnés, parfois perdus mais que nous remporterons ensemble. Paris (Ed. du Seuil) 2016