The Peace Corps Capitalism and US Empire
The Corps of Capitalism: volunteers for free enterprise
Far from alleviating poverty in the Global South, the American Peace Corps locks marginalized communities into a global web of capitalist exploitation.
“The Peace Corps was never intended to be blindly altruistic. Rather, it was designed to be an interpersonal demonstration of the fruits of democracy and free enterprise.”
The Heritage Foundation
On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed executive order 10924 which formally created the American Peace Corps (APC). Since its inception, the American Peace Corps has sent over 210.000 Americans abroad to 139 different countries with the intent of “promoting world peace and friendship.” Like many Americans, I knew very little about the workings of this organization. It wasn’t until I met a starry eyed graduate in Bangkok, Thailand who could only wax poetics about helping the poor set up businesses and take out micro-loans, that I felt I needed to find out more.
On the surface, the APC claims to “promote peace and friendship”, yet this is all a thin cover for two ulterior objectives: the spreading of U.S. geo-political influence by way of dependency on global capitalism, and the suppression of anti-capitalist grassroots movements. For the last 52 years the APC has been deceiving not only the destitute populations they claim to help, but also the young humanitarians who naively volunteer.
Those who have benefited from their own unrecognized privilege often feel obliged, through guilt and societal alienation, to prove that the illusion of meritocracy in capitalism is real, and that everyone can share in its happiness, if only they continue to work in the coltan mines and garment factories. As the world withers away beneath the feet of the privileged American, as millions in the Global South continue to die of hunger and disease, we remain in denial about the fact that it is to a very large extent this capitalist ideology that inflicts violence and fear upon the world.
Young college graduates would find a full life in bringing technical advice and assistance to the underprivileged and backward Middle East (…) In that calling, these men would follow the constructive work done by the religious missionaries in these countries over the past 100 years.
John F. Kennedy (1951)
By taking a genealogical approach, we can see that the APC’s role in imperialism is nothing new. Since the rise of European colonialism in the 14th century, imperialist nations have always played good cop/bad cop to win over the servitude of newly oppressed populations. Missionary groups tended to play the role of the good cops (“convert and you can join us”) while the police and military acted as the bad cops (“if you rebel, we will kill you”). The APC, playing the part of the missionary, is invited into foreign nations at the request of pro-business politicians to offer salvation through drastic cultural, structural, and socio-economic changes.
During the Cold War, as communist ideologies were spreading globally, the very rule of capital appeared to be challenged by the promise of an alternative egalitarian relationship (even if this alternative vision often ended up in new forms of bureaucratic state oppression). Not surprisingly, these alternative currents took their strongest hold in some of the most exploited societies and impoverished countries in the world. Anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist liberation movements swept the globe, fighting for democracy and self-rule.
The US found itself losing political allies in power and hence new markets to exploit. US strategists understood that if they were going to win back the ground they were losing, they would need to do more than just support genocidal right-wing military juntas, coups and dictatorships: they would also need a “good cop” organization of their own to help entrench the cultural hegemony of US empire and global capitalism. As Justin Phalichanh puts it, “the Peace Corps initially was formulated as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy in combating communism. It was not designed as an overseas anti-poverty program; it was to be a weapon in the Cold War arsenal.”
Sandy Smith arrived at a similar conclusion: “Most volunteers are placed in innocuous positions and urged to cooperate with authorities. They are instructed to stay out of political struggles and to clear out when things get hot… There is the rub — Peace Corps volunteers must try to do good without challenging the status quo, even though most of the countries served by the US Peace Corps are ruled by military dictatorships. Since these governments are inevitably allied with the United States, it is clear that what a volunteer program like the Peace Corps is most good for is public relations.”
In other words, the US government created the Peace Corps as a propaganda organization to help spread the myth of the American dream. The volunteers, primarily young middle-class Americans, were placed into communities to teach locals how to set up a small enterprise project, a practice which, according to Becky Buell from the Institute for Food and Development Policy, only benefited a few individuals at the expense of the larger community. More recently these business programs have encouraged the use of for-profit micro-loans, a controversial practice which a number of economic studies have shown do not alleviate poverty at all. By deflecting discontent away from the structures that actually perpetuate inequality — and by constantly reiterating the promise of future prosperity — the Peace Corps has only extended the suffering of those it pretends to help.
Of course the APC is far from the only organization with this pro-business agenda. James Petras, in an article entitled NGOs: In the Service of Imperialism, explains how the aims of countless charitable organizations is to specifically combat anti-capitalist agitation through the promotion of free enterprise and selective educational programs: “[The NGOs] come into the picture to mystify and deflect that discontent away from direct attacks on the corporate/banking power structures and profits toward local micro-projects and apolitical “grassroots” self-exploitation and “popular education” that avoids class analysis of imperialism and capitalist exploitation.”
Set up originally to crush Cold War communist movements, the APC and similar organizations have succeeded in diverting attention away from the anti-democratic imperialist institutions that so greatly aggravated world poverty. By using well-intentioned volunteers as vehicles of propaganda, the APC has been able to not only prevent any sort of class analysis from arising, but has also managed to recreate the same dependency complex we suffer from in the target communities of the “developed world”. As the process of globalized capitalism renders us all more and more dependent on corporations for our daily sustenance and on governments for protection and social services, the more willing we appear to be to sacrifice our freedoms for the comfort of ignorance.
As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to ‘give back.’ It’s what I would call ‘conscience laundering’ — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.
But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.
Peter Buffet (son of billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffet)
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of most communist and anti-imperialist movements, the Peace Corps has renovated its own organization in a desperate attempt to remain relevant. Regardless of these challenges, however, the main objectives behind the APC have remained the same: to peddle market-based solutions disguised as “sustainable” community development and to make any sort of radical contestation to the status quo as difficult as possible.
The ongoing global economic crisis was also a crisis for the APC. Specifically in the US, young people (potential recruits) started to question their faith in the status quo once they found themselves jobless and mired in tens of thousands of dollars in college debt. A 2011 Pew Poll showed that only 46 percent of Americans between the ages of 18-29 said they had positive views of capitalism. These young graduates were no longer the starry eyed poster-children that the American Peace Corps was once looking to recruit.
Consequently a recent change in the organization was to limit its recruitment of young people and instead focus on recruiting professional or retired volunteers. It seems that this older demographic, many of whom grew up in a time of post-war prosperity and for the most part continue to have some sort of financial security, are the only ones still able to promote their faith in the profit-based system. Additionally, through the creation of new social welfare programs such as “Youth and Community Development”, “HIV and AIDS” and “Earth Day”, the Peace Corps continues to paint authoritarian regimes as being concerned with the well-being of the poor. But as the US itself cuts services for poor Americans, the hypocrisy of the APC’s objectives has become shamelessly evident.
People are starting to ask how the US, a country with one of the worst healthcare systems in the so-called developed world, is in any way qualified to tell others how to care for their sick. Or, how the US, being the second largest contributor of carbon emissions in the world, feels that it is obliged to teach others how to protect their environment. What about America’s substandard educational programs or its obesity epidemic? This all boils down to the question: if the US can’t even provide basic necessities for its own citizens through the capitalist system, how can this system be expected to adequately help some of the poorest people in the world?
Towards the Future:
The greatest thing the Peace Corps could do for this country is to fight totalitarian and authoritarian governments and work for democracy and grass-roots change in the countries it serves.
During the Cold War, groups critical of the American Peace Corps, such as the Committee of Returned Volunteers, actively supported anti-imperialist movements. Today, however, there are no mass revolutionary movements sweeping the globe to support, only alienated communities struggling to stay afloat against new forms of oppression. This reality is in part due to the success of organizations like the APC, which have been able to infiltrate our social imaginary, spreading a sense of learned helplessness via the perpetuation of consumerist individualism.
There are no clear-cut solutions to these global problems, only the re-examination of this oppressive knowledge and its systems of control. Arundati Roy, in her book Walking with the Comrades, proposes a redefinition of words like “progress”, illustrating that today’s “progress” is synonymous with business and profit, only obtainable through social, environmental and cultural destruction. “Progress” however is far from the only terminology manipulated to conflate today’s problems with the expression of its solution. By redefining words such as progress, freedom and globalization in terms of equality, autonomy, solidarity and democracy, we can start to look for alternative relationships which will allow for sustainable solutions to the catastrophes humanity finds itself confronted with.
Roy explains that any sort of comprehensive, egalitarian “progress” will most likely come from those imaginations that have continued to resist the global hegemony of imperialism and capitalism — not from those that are so thoroughly immersed within it. So, if our goals are to find sustainable, democracy-based solutions to capitalist globalization, it would be a good idea to start by preserving the communities that have been able to hold out against this capitalist infiltration. Through the realization that others’ struggles for survival are intimately bound up with our own, we can start to recognize why organizations such as the American Peace Corps constitute a threat to our collective future.
Egalitarian grassroots movements are mass movements rooted in compassion for other people, and it is for this reason that we must expose how today’s structures of authority are able to time and time again manipulate these feelings of love and comradeship to wage war on the poor of our world. If we really want to help others, we must first realize that we are far from free ourselves, and that our own fight for freedom and equality is part of a much larger global struggle against all hierarchical relationships. Without recognizing this, we risk not only hurting the very people we strive to help, but we end up also hurting ourselves.
As a group of aboriginal activists in Queensland famously put it back in 1970, “if you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”