Greg Guma has worked for the twin causes of peace and justice through journalism, essays, politics and civic activism over the past several decades. A resident of Burlington, Vermont for more than 40 years, he edited the Vermont Vanguard Press from 1978 to 1982. He also published a syndicated column in the 1980s and 90s and from the mid-90s to 2004 edited “Toward Freedom,” which was then a print magazine covering global affairs. Guma organized one of the first independent media conferences and served as CEO of Pacifica Radio.
In 2003, he published “Uneasy Empire: Repression, Globalization, and What We can Do.” Even though the book was published 14 years ago, Guma feels the trends and dynamics he dissected then remain relevant today.
Question: In “Uneasy Empire” you talked about the growth of an American Empire and the dominance of organizations like the North American Free Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization and huge corporations in that empire. You see corporate globalization as crushing the power of the individual and placing it in the hands of transnational corporations and governing bodies that work on their behalf. Are you saying something about scale in our economy?
“Scale is an issue on a number of levels,” Guma said. “The world government we see around us seems to be in a period of realignment, and some of the old architecture is being taken down. “Uneasy Empire” is a globalist perspective. There are many problems that transcend national solutions. A global governance regime to handle this would be very big, but the real issues are access and accountability. Donald Trump is currently trying to establish an alliance of rogue states. He’s also continuing a long-term centralization of power, even though it’s based on ad-hoc relationships among power groups.
“Some of Trump’s paranoia about China is sincere. There are problems posed by China’s rise, but the models that dominated in the past have been threatened by corporate globalization. This scares many people. There was a challenge about 15-years ago to all of this (beginning with the Seattle WTO protests). It reached a high water mark before 9/11. Since then there has been a populist upheaval in response to the forces that control our lives and this in turn has led to a resurgence in authoritarianism. It often seems like the United Nations is irrelevant in all of this. But there is a chance for a democratic globalist solution if we reform those institutions. The authoritarian model is destined to fail.”
Guma feels President Donald Trump’s nationalist-populist style of politics and the left leaning crowd behind Senator Bernie Sanders are both reacting against the type of globalism that only benefits corporate America. However, Guma also thinks Trump’s administration is accelerating this trend.
“Trump’s regime is radical,” Guma said. “He’s letting many positions go unfilled and putting people in charge of agencies who want to destroy them. There has been an increase in smaller wars in the past 30 years. This helps companies associated with the defense industry and defense contractors. Going forward, I think we’ll see more small wars, environmental refugees and competition for resources. We know we need to establish bonds in our communities and build a different future, but right now we are stuck psychologically.”
Question: I’ll bet you feel the military-industrial complex is very much a part of the trends you are talking about in “Uneasy Empire: Repression, Globalization and What We Can Do?”
“The U.S. as a declining hegemon,” Guma said, “and will become more of a mercenary state. We have matured as a global power. We once used soft power solutions like the Marshall Plan, aide and trade, but now we’re moving more and more toward military solutions. The US was considered a good partner in the past and there was more mutual respect. But Trump is accelerating a trend that would have happened anyway: He’s making us untrustworthy.
“Nation building is not something we do anymore. The American empire advanced through diplomacy and trade. Now we have a small arms race going on. We see the transfer of weapons to other countries and more arms proliferation. When you deconstruct a regime and you don’t have anything to put in its place you create a lot of chaos. This is a phenomena of growth and decay. We’re seeing it now in the decay of the corporate global system. Something will need to be built in its wake.”
Question: Now that we’ve heard the bad part, what do you recommend to combat the trends you’ve dissected?
“It’s going to happen at the local level,” he said. “It’s good to have an eye on the big picture, but where we should spend our effort is where we live and where we can see change occur. This was a lesson I lived in Burlington, Vermont. In doing the peace work we did, we thought we would improve our lives. We were able to change the local culture and also have a ripple effect that changed the state.”
Since the late 1960s, Vermont citizens have created an economy with a strong local flavor. There are a number of consumer cooperatives, community based agriculture projects, local businesses, alternative media outlets and social action oriented non-profits in the state. People worked on the local level for a new type of economy and Guma feels it created something better.
“We had an influx of new people in the 60’s and 70’s,” said Guma. “Then you see this proliferation of activity around the environmental movement and the peace movement. We pushed agendas at town meetings. Vermont has a strong tradition when it comes to Town Meeting, and we used it to put peace proposals onto the ballot. This gave people a model to look at and led to a more tolerant, open culture. You can create something local that will spread.”
Question: I’ve heard people talk about thinking globally and acting locally. Can this work for those trying to create a more peaceful world?
“We did it here in Vermont,” Guma said. “What we did was to use local initiatives to create something like our own foreign policy. We brought forward a series of initiatives to define what we wanted in a foreign policy. Local governments can have a big impact. We look stances on many issues. For example, we took an anti-interventionist stance on Latin America, opposed apartheid, and formed groups to educate citizens on these issues. We also had Sister City programs to promote tolerance and understanding. If you do this over a period of years it starts to change consciousness.”
In addition to working in journalism, Guma also owned a bookstore that was often used as a hub of social activism and spearheaded the establishment of a peace and justice center in Burlington. He later worked as a coordinator of that center. Guma remembers the effectiveness of the 80’s nuclear freeze movement. City councils in Vermont, and later around the country, passed resolutions promoting a freeze in the number of nuclear weapons in the United States’ nuclear arsenal. Guma said a similar effort would be effective in the movement to ban nuclear weapons.
“The circumstances are totally different now due to the freeze movement of the 80’s,” he said. “People’s ideas on nuclear arms changed. Even Ronald Reagan changed his mind. This was a real victory for the peace movement.”