Ronald Reagan: Dead at Last!

Ronald Reagan has died of Alzheimer's Disease at the age of 93. With the deluge of positive commentary about his presidency it feels like a lot of America and quite a sizeable portion of Britain are also suffering from it.

Yet facts are awkward things and while often ignored do not change. And the facts are Reagan was a disaster not only for the world, but also for America. Indeed, if by "America" it is meant the majority of the population, then Reagan must be considered one of the most anti-American Presidents of the last century.

For all his rhetoric about freedom, Reagan stood squarely with the oppressors at home and abroad.

In America he implemented a class war which saw widening of inequality, tax cuts for the rich and the average hourly earnings for most workers falling. The share of national income going to capital rose. The benefits of economic growth accrued to the elite with most of the country's income gains going to the top 1 or 2 percent of households. His policies reversed the trend toward greater distribution of wealth and have led to the greatest concentration of wealth since the days of "robber baron" capitalism of the 1890s. Average household income was only maintained because more women went out to work (so helping to destroy the "family values" Reagan said he supported). Unemployment soared. Benefit levels for the poor, already low, were frozen and Reagan imposed enormous cuts to social welfare programs and the Veterans Administration, moves that led to such an enormous rise in the homeless population. He also enriched agri-business at the expense of small farmers, continuing the decline of the family farm. He attacked organised labour, with the firing of the air traffic controllers showing that union busting was back. Not to mention his terrible environmental record, of course.

Abroad, he aimed numerous authoritarian regimes. He toasted Ferdinand Marcos, supported Argentine fascist generals as well as Manuel Noriega. Not to mention Saddam, whom Reagan supported and armed, not letting the gassing of the Kurds affect the deals being cut -- he even supplied Saddam with "dual-use" items, including chemicals, to show how important dead Kurds were to the Whitehouse. He also took Iraq off the list of states declared by the state department as sponsoring terrorism.

Reagan also supported the apartheid regime in South Africa. As the black majority rebelled and the regime responded with extra-judicial killings, abductions, torture and aggression against neighbouring states, Reagan resisted all attempts to impose economic sanctions against Botha's regime and vetoed UN resolutions against South Africa. If that was not enough, he insisted on aiding the deposed Khmer Rouge and so prolonged a civil war. He also argued that it should take Cambodia's seat at the UN. He also welcomed Angola's Unita to the White House and described this murderous group as winning "a victory that electrifies the world and brings great sympathy and assistance from other nations to those struggling for freedom".

Then there was the illegal funnelling of aid to the Nicaraguan "contras", terrorists used by the US to undermine the radical Sandinista government. Reagan's Whitehouse even sold weapons to Iran and used the profits of this criminal trade to fund his illegal war against Nicaragua. Reagan escaped impeachment during the Iran-Contra Scandal because he "could not recall" in response to more than one hundred questions during the Congressional hearings.

The people of El Salvador will have a different perspective on Reagan, given that the right wing ARENA, armed by Reagan money, weapons, and military training from the School of the America's, slaughtered more than 80,000 of them. In Guatemala, tens of thousands were also murdered under the rule of Reagan's ally, General Rios Montt. Or those Nicaraguans in the "soft targets" (like schools and hospitals) beloved by Reagan's Contra terrorists, whom he hailed as the "moral equivalent of our founding fathers." These "freedom fighters" murdered, tortured and mutilated civilians (including children and women) in order to terrorise a people to vote as America wanted. So it is doubtful whether the families of the hundreds of thousands in Central America murdered by death squads armed and funded by Reagan are mourning his passing.

And yet the myth of Reagan as a strong leader willing to fight for freedom is still peddled. As Reagan said, "facts are stupid." Clearly, the removal of the reformist government from the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada must be considered as a turning point in world history. Not that the collapse of the USSR can be laid at his door. Without his strong man rhetoric, the reforms that brought about the collapse of Stalinism would have been implemented sooner. It was not Reagan who ended Stalinist tyranny but rather the hundreds of thousands of people across Eastern Europe who risked their lives taking to the streets who did so. The kind of people power Reagan spent so much energy crushing at home and in Central America.

All this is unsurprising as, for the right, freedom is equated to capitalism. Yet even here reality was at odds with the legend. While he slashed taxes for the richest, he raised taxes on the poor. He deregulated the Savings and Loan industry, enriching the few, and subsequently bailed it out at taxpayer expense when the dynamics of the market took its toll. He presided over such a corrupt and over-inflated stock market that it saw the largest one-day crash in its history, greater than in 1929. He talked about free-trade but backed the protectionist measures. He embraced Monetarism, causing the worse slump since the Great Depression. On the plus side, this was ideal for breaking the back of working class resistance (as intended). He then used military Keynesianism to bolster the economy, with defence-spending and deficits rising to astronomical heights -- aided by enormous and outrageous military contracts for which taxpayers paid hundreds of dollars for nuts, bolts, and toilet seats (all the while AIDS research was under funded). And yet the 1980s had the slowest growth of any decade in the post-World War II era.

After his two terms spending by the federal government was (in real terms) 25% higher, the federal civilian workforce had increased from 2.8 million to 3 million and federal spending was basically unchanged (at over 20% of GDP). That the Ronald Reagan Building is the largest government building in Washington says more about his legacy than the eulogies we have had to suffer recently. So Reagan as "anti-government crusader" is a myth. He got the government off the bosses' back, sure, but not off the workers'. The capitalist dream of the state as little more than a defender of property, as a rod for the workers' back, was revived.

What of his other legacies? His "war on drugs" was a costly (and authoritarian) failure while his "war in terror" saw a C.I.A.-sponsored car-bombing in Lebanon (with more than eighty civilians killed) along with extensive support for state terrorism by client regimes. He "cut and run" from Lebanon after a suicide bomber killed more than 200 American soldiers. His Whitehouse also armed the Mojahedin to resist the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, one of whose groups evolved into the Taliban and another (with CIA approval) into al-Qaida. Combined with US support for Saddam, would the current (equally bogus) "war on terror" be necessary if it had not been for Reagan?

If an accurate account of his time in the White House was presented the obvious conclusion to draw would be that Reagan was a miserable failure -- unless you were rich. If the rich get richer, you can preside over the worse recession since the 1930s and subsequent historically poor economic recovery and see it praised as an economic miracle. If the rich get richer, you can kill as many foreigners as you like and be praised as a man of peace. If the rich get richer you can concentrate wealth to extreme levels and still be called a man of the people. This explains the advanced symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease the media and some parts of the public have exhibited of late.

Yet we should not forget that Reagan, like Thatcher, only applied the policies their erstwhile opponents had already started to implement. Perhaps they took them to a higher level, but the writing was on the wall. Nor should we forget that the Spanish Socialist Party and Labour Party in New Zealand applied the same Thatcherite policies when in power. Clinton and Blair have continued the neo-liberal policies. After all, they were all subject to the same pressures from the state bureaucracy and big business. Which suggests that putting your faith in the ballot-box is illusionary. Only an extra-parliamentary movement can curb the excesses of state and capitalist power, for regardless of who gets elected the needs of capital are always placed first.

But now Reagan is gone -- only Pinochet, Thatcher and Milton Friedman to go.

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