Like many Americans, I knew very little about the workings of the American Peace Corps. 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 know more.
"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
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.” 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. In order to fully recognize and understand these APC objectives, one needs to first understand how capitalism works, not only as an economic system, but also as a relationship of faith.
By comparing modern capitalism to organized religion, we can see that both these structures rely on faith based narratives. The primary function of these myths is to explain the past, the present and the future to justify these structure’s very existence. The modern capitalist myth is that from the introduction of capitalism, life has only improved for everyone through mass production. The present is seen as “the end of history,” a perfect world which will continue indefinitely. The future for the capitalist either doesn’t really exist [the perpetuation of the present] or involves complete catastrophe [an end to “humanity”] (which is commonly portrayed in movies as small capitalist groups roaming around vast expanses of ruins).
With this in mind, we can see how those who join the Peace Corps with aspirations of helping the destitute of the third world end up only furthering the destruction of other people’s ways of life by indirectly pushing their own faith as the solution. Although maybe unrecognized, the motivations are the same as the religious zealots who colonized much of the world through acts of violence and fear. It is this faith-based mentality, which makes one believe that only they know the “righteous” path. In today’s world, conversion to the capitalist paradigm is sold as the only salvation [“Sell your labor and abandon your past, capitalism is the only way to be saved”].
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 their happiness, if only they continue to work in the Coltan mines, or better, open their own mines. As the world withers away beneath the privileged American, as millions in the global south die of hunger and disease, we remain in denial that its this capitalist religion which is inflicting 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 the 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 forces 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.
As we have seen, these vast alterations lead to a population which is dependent on money for sustenance, only able to survive through either the selling of one’s own labor or the exploitation of others. The APC volunteer many times does not realize how they are simply pawns in a war waged against the poor of the third world. Instead of learning about traditional indigenous systems of collective economic production and distribution, they instead go into communities ready to use their knowledge of the “developed” world to help “backward” peasants. Eric Wolf in “Europe and the People Without History” explains how the creation of a globalized market has only increased these “conflicts of perspective” and that these contradictions and conflicts between collectivist and capitalist modes of production are nothing new, having been an omnipresent part of the colonization process (Wolf). The communities which do not accept these changes of lifestyle are made to suffer incredible loss of life, land and freedom at the hand of the government’s domestic military forces.
During the Cold War, communist ideologies were spreading globally, challenging capital globalization through the offering of an alternative egalitarian relationship. Not surprisingly, these currents were taking their strongest hold in the most exploited societies and impoverished countries. Anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist liberation movements were sweeping the globe, fighting for democracy and self-rule. With this the U.S. was finding itself losing political allies in power and markets to exploit. U.S. 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:
“The Peace Corps initially was formulated as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy in combating communism. It was not designed as an overseas antipoverty program; it was to be a weapon in the Cold War arsenal”
“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 U.S. 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”
To accomplish the goal of supporting dictatorships and corporate exploitation all the while looking like a humanitarian charity, the American government created the APC as a propaganda organization to spread the American dream. The volunteers, primarily young middle class Americans, were placed into communities to teach about starting small enterprise projects, 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 (Smith). More recently these business programs have encouraged the use of for-profit micro-loans, a controversial practice which according to economic research has not been shown to actually alleviate poverty (Bateman).
Many of those who have continued to advocate for the APC’s enterprise programs have pointed to a growing bourgeois class and cooperative industrial employment as being signs of success. Yet this perspective has only highlighted these people’s inability to understand the very system which they peddle; that capitalism is a system which isolates wealth into the bank accounts of a small minority [which even most capitalists fully understand and embrace], and that this system can only continue to do so by keeping the toiling masses either ignorant, fearful, or deprived of their basic needs to survive. By deflecting discontent away from the structures which actually perpetuate inequality [non-democratic governments, corporate exploitation] the APC has only extended the suffering of those they pretend to help.
The APC however is not the only organization with this pro-tyranny, pro-business agenda. During my research I found that many international NGOs fulfilled the same missionary role. James Petras, in his article entitled NGOs: In the Service of Imperialism, explains how these organizations specifically combat communism through enterprise and selective educational programs:
“[They] 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 "grass roots" 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-democracy imperialist institutions which have caused global poverty. By using good-intentioned volunteers as vehicles of propaganda, the APC has been able to not only prevent any sort of class analysis from arising, but has been able to recreate the same dependency complex we suffer from in the “developed world” within target communities. As the process of globalized capitalism makes us all more and more dependent on corporations for sustenance and governments for protection and social services, the more willing we are 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 Warren Buffet)
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end to most communist ideologue movements, the APC have renovated the organization in a desperate attempt to remain relevant. Regardless of these changes however, the main objectives have remained: to peddle market based solutions disguised as “sustainable” community development and to make any sort of radical organizing as difficult as possible.
One apparent alteration in the organization is it’s approach to leftist radical organizing. At the start of the Cold War, the organization had an overtly anti-communist rhetoric, aimed at stopping any existing opposition movements within the target communities. The original APC act even explicitly instructed volunteers to be trained in the “philosophy, strategy, tactics, and menace of Communism.” This overt stance however was short lived and instead gave way to the present “nip it in the bud” approach. By attempting to prevent any sort of class analysis from starting, through selective educational programs, the organization has been able to redirect blame from exploitative governments and corporation to the individuals’ lifestyles.
The recent global economic crisis was also a crisis for the APC. Specifically in the U.S., young people [potential recruits] started to question their faith in the status quo once they found themselves jobless and tens of thousands of dollars in school debt. A 2011 Pew Poll showed that only 46% of Americans between the ages of 18-29 said they had positive views of Capitalism (Eichler). 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 to the organization was limiting its recruitment of young people and instead focused on recruiting professional or retired volunteers (Abruzzese). 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.
Lastly, through the creation of new social welfare programs such as “Youth and Community Development”, “HIV ands AIDS”, and “Earth Day”, the APC 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 have become shamelessly evident.
People are starting to ask how the U.S., a country with one of the worst healthcare systems in the “developed world”, is in any way qualified to tell other’s how to care for their sick. Or, how the U.S., being the second largest contributor of carbon emissions in the world, feels that it’s obliged to teach others how to protect their environment. What about the U.S.’s substandard educational program or its obesity epidemic? This all boils down to the question: “If the U.S. can’t even provide basic necessities for its own citizens through a capitalist system, how can this system be expected to adequately help others?”
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 (African Activist Archive), however these tactics would be pointless today. 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 programs such as the APC, which have been able infiltrate our social knowledge. It’s because of this, that we find a mass forgetting of past revolutionary movements, the inability to imagine the social restructuring of society, and feelings 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 Comrades proposes a redefining of words such as “progress”, illustrating that today’s “progress” is synonymous with business and profit, only obtainable through environmental and cultural destruction. “Progress” however is far from the only terminology manipulated to conflate the problems of today with the expression of it’s 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 problems of today.
Roy continues to explain that any sort of comprehensive, egalitarian “progress” will most likely come from those imaginations who have continued to resist the hegemony of imperialism and capitalism, not from those who are instead 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 which have been able to hold out against this capitalist infiltration. Through the realization that other’s struggles for survival are intimately bound up with our own, we can start to recognize why organizations such as the APC are 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 the structures of authority today are able to time and time again manipulate these feelings of love and comradeship to wage war on the poor of the third world. If we really want to help others, we must first realize that we are far from free ourselves, and that our struggles 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.
“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.”
-Aboriginal activists group Queensland 1970