The U.S. government is doling out billions of dollars to private corporations to rebuild Iraq. Multinationals are taking over everything from oil field technology to public transportation to water services to government ministries, as those entities that were once under state control are rapidly being privatized by American occupying authorities. Top U.S. administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer has said there will not be democratic elections in that country until its economy is restructured to make it hospitable to foreign investors. Organizers of the institute's campaign say this means private corporations are profiting off the misery of war, and privatization is ensuring that U.S. occupation of Iraq will continue indefinitely.
National groups, including Public Citizen, Global Exchange and United for Peace and Justice, are backing the institute's "Campaign to Stop the War Profiteers and End the Corporate Invasion of Iraq," as are progressive personalities Noam Chomsky, Jim Hightower and Howard Zinn.
But how is war profiteering in Iraq a Southern issue, and why is the Institute for Southern Studies launching this campaign?
Many of the companies getting the biggest contracts and raking in the greatest profits are based in the South. In particular, the institute is targeting Dallas-based Halliburton, Bechtel (a private company based in San Francisco which has regional offices in Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia), Virginia-based MCI and our own Research Triangle Institute.
Halliburton, once headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, was awarded a no-bid contract for $7 billion to put out Iraqi oil fires and has effectively been given control of Iraqi oil operations. Bechtel stands to gain more than any other company, thanks to a no-bid contract for infrastructure repair in Iraq that could eventually be worth $100 billion. MCI (formerly known as WorldCom until accounting fraud brought it to bankruptcy) has been given a $30-million contract to build a wireless network in Iraq, despite having no experience building such a network. Research Triangle Institute's $167.9-million contract gives it control over "improving essential municipal services" including water.
But it's not just the presence of these corporations that makes this a Southern issue, says Chris Kromm, the institute's director. "The South has really become the home of the military-industrial complex in this country and is a driving force in the county's overall drive to war," he says. "As Southerners, we do need to understand and rise to the challenge of the fact that it's powerful corporate players in our own backyard that are driving a lot of the misery being experienced by U.S. soldiers and the Iraqi people."
The Institute for Southern Studies was founded in 1970 by civil rights activists looking to channel the energy of the movement into a progressive organization that would work for racial fairness, economic justice, and democracy. In 1973, it began publishing the quarterly magazine Southern Exposure, which blends oral history, investigative journalism and accessible academic writing to produce in-depth explorations of issues such as poverty, voting, prisons, education and the environment from Texas to Virginia.
According to a statement on its Web site, www.southernstudies.org, the institute also works to challenge the South's "reputation as a monolithic, conservative stronghold."
"The South is no longer an isolated backwater, if it ever was," Kromm says. "Today it's one of the most critical regions in world affairs." While American manufacturing jobs seem to be moving rapidly to Mexico and Asia, in fact, more and more corporations in Europe and Asia are relocating to the South. The region also has the fastest growing immigration rate in the U.S.
Military contractors are nothing new here. As the founding member and former director of the institute, Bob Hall, points out the first issue of Southern Exposure was on the military and the South. "It described in detail a number of ways that the militarism of the nation is grounded in Southern culture and is bolstered by Southern politicians."
Southerners are more likely to fight in wars. While the South is home to 36 percent of Americans, 42 percent of troops hail from this region, more than any other in the U.S. The South also hosts more military bases. And political figures from the South are the ones most inclined to send those troops off to war.
"It's very appropriate that the institute would take this up," says Hall, who is now research director and co-executive director at progressive advocacy group Democracy North Carolina. "To make those links between corporate greed and profiteering and the military- industrial complex, of companies using war as an instrument of economic gain" harkens back to the organization's beginnings, he says.
The campaign has three specific political goals. Organizers want Congress to hold hearings on the issue of war profiteering. They also want Congress to institute an "excess profits tax" on all contracts the U.S. military draws up with private contractors. And the campaign is calling on the Bush administration not to privatize Iraqi industries and resources--such as oil, water and transportation--by turning them over to multinational corporations.
Kromm admits that the goals are lofty. "I think all of them are long shots given the current political climate." But, he adds, there is a growing disenchantment with the Bush administration and with American soldiers still dying in Iraq. "This is something almost everyone can get behind. Whether you were for the war or against it, the fact is that the idea of corporations making billions of dollars off of death and destruction, while U.S. soldiers are dying, is something that appalls lots of people."
It seems as though the institute, long recognized for its regional advocacy, is jumping in to a fill a void in national progressive leadership. Kromm says that has partly to do with the unique sense of responsibility that Southern progressives feel.
Kerry Taylor, who is on the institute's board of directors, is also an oral historian at the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC-Chapel Hill. "I've done interviews with a number of Southern activists," Taylor says. "As they've operated in national contexts, they report feeling distinct from their Northern counterparts." During the civil rights movement, he says activists "were less able to disembody it because it was more immediate, because they were here." That personal connection has lingered.
Kromm says many progressives in the South are veterans and people from faith communities. Personal connections to the military also infuse the region's unique style of progressive activism. "There's very few degrees of separation between them and the military. They come to this with very personal reasons for not wanting to see the people they love sent off to wars that don't make sense." Kromm says he has cousins in South Carolina and Georgia who are in active service.
"I think there's also a sense of Southern independence to being pushed around. When they see that corporations like Halliburton are going to make $490 million in pure profit off just one contract, in taxpayer money, while their family members are being laid off, they look at that with a suspicious eye and aren't very willing to trust what the government's up to."
Other recent projects at the institute have also taken on national and global issues. An extensive investigation into predatory lending--documented in the current issue of Southern Exposure--uncovered a pattern of economic and racial discrimination on the part of major financial corporations. Citigroup is the main culprit in that report. Its sub-prime lending operation, CitiFinancial, sets up offices in areas with a lower average income--areas that tend to be in the South, and predominantly black. "If you look at a map of Atlanta, it's almost a one-to-one correlation," Kromm says. "You can have a perfect credit rating, you can have a full-time job, if you walk into that office, CitiFinancial, they'll hit you with a higher rate. So it's targeting."
Other institute projects include the Southern Voting Rights Project and the Farmworker Justice Project. An upcoming issue of Southern Exposure themed "East meets South" will look at how Asia and Asian immigrants play into this change.
"Now more than ever, any project we take on is going to be in this global framework," Kromm says. "I believe in the idea of a Third Reconstruction. The South has had two reconstructions that brought economic gain here. The first was after the Civil War, and the second was about 100 years later during the black liberation movement of the '50s and '60s.
"The Third Reconstruction, I believe, is going to be about how the South relates to these global issues."