The Corporatocracy Strikes Again
The recent Supreme Court decision in the McCutcheon case really should come as no surprise at this point. It is clear that the branch of government that is least accountable to the public should take the lead in securing the so called rights of the corporate elite. This is one more nail in the coffin of democratic governance. What is surprising is that Americans, for the most part, really don’t recognize the Supreme Court, at least its five conservative members, as the enemies of democracy that they are.
McCutcheon eliminated the limits on the amount contributors can make to candidates and parties for campaigns. Implicit in this decision is that the wealthy have no real limits. The vast majority of Americans have de facto limits considering that we have to eat and pay our mortgages and such.
As pointed out by Mike Ludwig at Truthout, “Campaign finance watchdogs now estimate that a single wealthy donor could spread up to $3.6 million among candidates, party committees and some political action groups affiliated with a single party during a single election cycle. A single donor could theoretically spend twice that amount by supporting candidates and committees from both parties…” As we know, corporations and corporate owners like to hedge their bets by buying both sides of the debate.
The justification for this plutocratic decision is in the supposed right to free speech which is equated with the ability to spend money. However, any valuation of rights must take into account the extent and limits of said rights even if the premise money=speech is to be taken seriously, which it isn’t. All ethical arguments with regard to rights agree that one’s rights end where another’s rights begin. Your right to shake your fist ends at my face! The potential of big money to drown out any other less lucrative form of “speech” must be taken into account by any ethical decision maker.
An analysis of rights always requires a distinction to be made between what constitutes a “right” and what constitutes “a power.” This is revealed in Roberts’ claim that the government cannot regulate how much money someone can spend on elections any more than it can tell a newspaper how many candidates it can endorse. The ability to spend money is not a right, any more than is the ability to own a newspaper. These are powers conferred through social processes of status and access to resources. I may have a right, as an individual to speak, but if I owned a newspaper, I would have the power to have my voice heard before a larger audience. I do not, as an individual, have a right to my own newspaper. A newspaper is something I can acquire if I have the resources to do so. The same holds true with spending money. Rights are universal; power is reserved for those who can acquire it. That’s the whole point of a society based on rights, to protect the common man and woman from trespasses of power. The creation of the concept of rights is an acknowledgement that abuses of power constitute an injustice and are destabilizing characteristics of society. This ethical and moral implication of rights is ignored, consistently, by the corporate apparatchiks on the Supreme Court.
And there’s the rub. The five conservative members of the Supreme Court are not ethical decision makers. They are cronies of the corporate establishment. We should not expect “justice” or “ethics” to shape their decisions. The very purpose of the Supreme Court is to distort the constitution enough to fit the narrow worldview of the corporate elite, to further empower the powerful at the expense of the Demos. That’s the only explanation for such ludicrous concepts coming off the high bench as “corporate personhood” or “money is speech” or “government speech.” These concepts are not in the Constitution. They are not even inferred regardless of the particular lens of the reader. These are inventions of the corporate elite which have become the dogma of the right wing.
Soldiers are imbued with war’s transcendent purpose, and despair when it is all for naught
In the 1960’s young American men were, once again, called to duty to protect their country from tyranny. In this case, the imminent threat was an innocuous rural nation called Vietnam. Many Americans had never heard of this place, but they were informed that Vietnam was under threat from evil communism. If the rice paddies of the Mekong were to fall to the Reds, it would not be long before Indochina and the rest of Southeast Asia were receiving orders from Moscow and Beijing. Then Japan would fall. Soon, America would be alone, surrounded by the Red menace, until the hammer and sickle flew over the White House and democracy was lost forever. The danger was clear, and the only course of action was for brave men to fight and kill and possibly die for democracy. Over 2.7 million men answered the call to protect their country. According to the National Vietnam Veterans Foundation, three quarters of these were volunteers (as opposed to World War II in which two thirds of those serving were drafted).
In April of 1975, Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam fell to the People’s Army. Vietnam was unified under a communist regime despite almost 60,000 American deaths. More ordinance was dropped on Vietnam than in both theaters of World War II, yet communism prevailed. I’m sure that the thousands of veterans who put their lives on the line to save Vietnam from communism, who lost cherished friends in battle, whose lives had been scarred by the horrors of war, felt the pang of defeat to the bottom of their souls.
Vietnam has been a communist nation for almost thirty years now. Yet Japan remains free, the Stars and Stripes still fly over the White House and life has gone on as it would have regardless of American involvement in one of its most destructive wars. Indeed, the only dictatorships to rise in the region were hardly communist dominoes. They were largely brutal American puppet states, divorced from concepts of human rights and freedom, but committed to anti-communism.
Time has a way of lifting the fog of rhetoric and propaganda, revealing the truth. In this case, the truth is obvious. The American war in Vietnam and Indo-China was a colossal and bloody waste of time, money, and most crucially, precious lives. No one feels the sting of that revelation like the Vietnam veteran. Something precious, something beyond measure was stolen from him. Something precious, something beyond measure was stolen from his entire generation. Righteous anger is the only reasonable response. The reality revealed by the Fall of Saigon is that war is always a lie; in the words of General Smedley Butler in reference to much earlier wars, “war is a racket.”
Few wars are as blatantly racketish as the Iraq War. That Americans were lied to by an Administration determined to go into Iraq for its own reasons, oil, revenge, to finish “the job” of the first Gulf War, is beyond contention. Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction. Iraq did not have connections to al-Qaeda. Iraq was not a threat, and not involved in 9/11. Iraqis would not view American soldiers as liberators and throw roses at their feet. Instead, despite the fall of Saddam Hussein, American soldiers found themselves serving double and triple tours in unrelentingly hostile territory as competing factions vied to fill the power vacuum left by a fallen dictator. America, on the other hand, is no more free, and perhaps even less safe, as a result.
The epitome of the American soldier’s service and sacrifice in Iraq were the Battles for Fallujah in 2004. Despite initial setbacks, US forces faught bravely through the city streets in brutal, urban combat. Marines were tasked with nullifying the threat of insurgents, often engaging the enemy door to door. At the cost of almost a hundred American lives and as many as 1500 insurgents, the city was secured. Most of the city itself was damaged, with about twenty percent of its structures destroyed.
This last month, however, Fallujah fell to al Qaeda backed insurgents, many of whom were those the Marines drove out ten years earlier. The fall of Fallujah came as a shock and an emotional slap in the face to soldiers who had risked their lives, and seen the lives of their friends and comrads sacrificed. According to Adam Banotai, quoted in the Washington Post, “None of us thought it was going to fall back to a jihadist insurgency… It made me sick to my stomach to have that thrown in our face, everything we fought for so blatantly taken away.” It sure seemed that everything they had faught for was a waste.
It was also a lie. As with the Fall of Saigon, the Fall of Fallujah is certainly of no more than emotional and symbolic consequence to the United States. Americans will be no less free, nor any less safe than they were before the Fall of Fallujah. Iraq has, for the most part, become a second tier news story. Soldiers must now face the bleak revelation that their mission, and the rational behind their actions does not jive with historical reality. We must all realize that these fine soldiers, often referred to as “treasure” by shifty elected officials, were victims of a racket. In this, they are not alone.
This statement should not be seen as a criticism of our soldiers. Rather, it is an attempt to illuminate the nature of state sanctioned violence and the inherent contradictions of a system that is at once a practical tool for advancing power interests, and at the same time a system made functional by rational and emotional agents…human beings with human drives, strengths and frailties. It’s in these moments, the Fall of Saigon, or Fallujah, when the contradictory nature of our so called national “defense” comes to light. Here we have an inherently violent institution, the functions of which are satisfied by human beings who are not, in and of themselves, violent. How can such a system function, and what are the human costs in perpetuating this system?
The truth is that militarism can only be perpetuated by lies.
The sociologist, Lewis Coser posited that there were two factors necessary to perpetuate group violence, of which war is the ultimate testament: emotional involvement and the formation of transcendant goals. As offered above, the reasons offered for going to war with Iraq were clearly not true, but they were emotional, that initial emotion being fear. The Bush Administration cynically played against Americans’ understandable sense vulnerability after 9/11 to push a long-standing agenda. It is clear that the Bush Administration was intent on a war with Iraq long before there was even a Bush Administration. This was clear from the revelations that the Bush Administration drew heavily from the adherents of the Project for a New American Century, whose primary goal was the unseating of Saddam Hussein. After 9/11, administration officials pushed the notion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and scared us with a nightmare fable of a mushroom cloud rising over an American city.
Meanwhile, the hair-trigger of the American military is greased with a sense of transcendance. It’s our soldiers who are credited for our freedoms, our rights. Every celebration of and reference to Americanism, including most notably Independence Day, has become an homage to militarism. It is, therefore, understood that our fighting men and women are dedicated to the task of democracy, of freedom, of human rights. The Battle of Fallujah was not just another tactic in a larger political game; it was the key to extending freedom to the Iraqi people. One marine said, “I hoped that the people of Fallujah could finally live in peace.” It was not about oil, or revenge or any such mundane political gambit. Equally, Vietnam was about saving a nation from the ravages of communism, not about the expansion of geopolitical power. More often than not, however, the veil of transcendence is nothing more than the smoke and mirrors supporting an elaborate lie. Upon the Fall of Fallujah, the same marine above opined, “It’s a low blow. We fought long and hard to take that city. It’s as if they didn’t care about the freedom we wanted to give them.”
Hence we end up tongue tied in our attempts to understand the scope of human loss experienced by soldiers who are also loved ones, friends, fellow workers. We are struck by the disillusionment expressed by Kael Weston’s observation of the Fall of Fallujah, “This has been a gut punch to the morale of the Marine Corps and painful for a lot of families who are saying, ‘I thought my son died for a reason.’ ” How do we, when faced with these families, say it was a lie? It is easier to offer consolation by reciting the transcendant virtues we have been taught to uphold, yet can’t possibly accept as true. It becomes necessary to delude ourselves.
Yet the truth is more complex, more contradictory. Yes, your son’s did die for a reason. They were imbued with perfectly noble goals for which the agrieved should be proud. The loss, however, is on the heads of politicians who use these transcendant goals for cynical purpose. They are the ones who should be held to account, to explain the deaths and debilitations resulting from their policies.
This is what makes war the most vile of all rackets. In order to perpetrate the con on millions of people, our politicians play on our most noble virtues, our quest for freedom and our desire to protect our loved ones from danger. These virtues are true and honest representations of human nature. It’s the nature of politics and state power that proves to be dishonest and disreputable.
Or…The Vietnam Iraq Syndrome
I have to admit, I’m feeling pretty satisfied watching President Obama twisting himself into myriad contortions to justify US military intervention in Syria. I’m satisfied because I see this as one further step in a paradigm shift in which Americans reject the legitimacy of war and militarism altogether. The long march to a paradigm of peace has been a long time coming, and will not be realized any time soon, but time and again war has been exposed as a lie. It is only a matter of time before war becomes synonymous with lies in the minds of the people and is universally rejected.
9/11 was a huge setback for the peace movement. The slow re-establishment of American militarism that began under President Reagan in the 80’s blossomed in the fertile field of fear and paranoia resulting from that sudden and brutal attack. We Americans allowed ourselves to be conned into war with Afghanistan without so much as a peep. Americans, with few exceptions, embraced attacking Afghanistan because…well…because we were attacked and, therefore, we had to attack someone. Other options, other strategies, other ways of thinking about how a nation can deal with terrorism rather than by declaring war were not offered or, if suggested, were ignored.
Voices for peace, for treating terrorism as the crime that it is…regardless of who is perpetrating it… were mostly silenced. Those who would not remain quiet were marginalized and even vilified. The US was attacked. It was time to strike. War was the only viable response. We invaded Afghanistan despite the fact that not a single 9/11 terrorist was Afghan. Still, someone had to be attacked and destroying a country always makes one feel better, empowered.
With blood still dripping from our teeth, the Bush Administration turned our attention toward a new threat. They whipped up our war lust further with dystopian fantasies of hairy Arabs storming the US with Iraqi made chemical and biological weapons. Each speech was heavily punctuated with references to the iconic mushroom cloud as if it was always hanging over us. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Americans once again allowed ourselves to embrace the fallacy of war.
Now, Americans are waking from this bloody bacchanal, our economy wrecked, our dignity destroyed, our reputation among nations tattered. Our new perspective on war is no longer clouded by fear and blood-lust, so we can clearly see the lies, the subterfuge. We are angry, and not a little ashamed of the last twelve years. We are skeptical of our elected leaders and cynical of their intentions when they start talking of bombs and missiles and drones. The citizenry is no longer swayed so easily by the drums of war.
It’s not the first time. After World War I, the American public realized that war is not only senseless destruction, but that powerful forces influence the decision to go to war based on self-interest rather than national interest. In 1934, Republican Senator Gerald P. Nye conducted intensive investigations of US entry into the Great War. Rather than a “war to end all wars,” Nye saw an exchange of blood for profits. He said, “When the Senate investigation is over, we shall see that war and preparation for war is not a matter of national honor and national defense, but a matter of profit for the few.” The commission held the public attention and fanned popular ire and anti-war sentiment. When Nye became too critical of the late President Wilson, however, his inquiry was shut down by the Senate before it could be completed.
Shortly after the Nye Commission began sifting through the ubiquitous lies of war, one General Smedley Butler, a decorated war hero, published a version of his popular, nation-wide lecture series, War is a Racket. Butler noted that World War I saw the birth of over 20,000 new millionaires and billionaires in the United States. In his lecture he asked, “How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?” Ultimately, Butler had to ask how much average Americans had to pay to create these new millionaires and billionaires. “This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations.” Despite a thirty-four year military career, including two Medals of Honor, the most decorated marine up to that time concluded his lecture with, “TO HELL WITH WAR!”
Most Americans agreed with Butler’s conclusion. American politicians responded by passing multiple Neutrality Acts throughout the thirties. It took a direct attack against the United States at Pearl Harbor to reverse almost twenty-five years of anti-war sentiment characterized by Nye and Butler.
After the tumult, instability, meaningless deaths and wasted youth resulting from the Vietnam War, Americans were once again disenchanted with war. The power elite stoked fears of communism, the Domino Theory to justify destroying Vietnam to save it. After all, if a bunch of peasants along the Mekong became communist, it was only a matter of time before the Commies were sailing down the Mississippi. It took news of an attack against American forces in the Gulf of Tonkin, a mostly fictitious account it turns out, before President Johnson could justify his escalation of American Militarism.
Meanwhile, Americans watched almost 60,000 flag draped coffins find their way into American cemeteries, while government lies were revealed in the Pentagon Papers and other leaks. The atrocities committed at Mai Lai were played out on television. Heart-wrenching photo-journalism darkened our magazines and newspapers. The brutal imbecility of war was never more obvious to the American public.
American antipathy for war in the 1970’s and 80’s was referred to as the Vietnam Syndrome. This was of great concern to the politicians of this time, chomping at the bit for a war of their own. President Reagan’s unprecedented peacetime military build-up culminated in nothing more than a pathetic military operation against the not-so threatening nation of Grenada, population less than 100,000.
In 1991, President H. W. Bush announced that “the Vietnam Syndrome is over” after the successful blitzkrieg of Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. He may have been a little pre-mature. Certainly, the Vietnam Syndrome was foremost in Colin Powell’s mind, and in the minds of his staff, as they prepared a decisive victory with a clear endgame. The heroic journalism that brought the Vietnam War home to Americans would no longer be tolerated as journalists were often excluded, or embedded through the military Public Relations offices. To head off protests, Americans were encouraged to “support the troops, even if you don’t support the war.” Protestors, of whom I was one, were soundly condemned as unpatriotic, measured against an archetype of Vietnam era activists who shamefully spit on returning soldiers. The nascent twenty-four hour news cycle ran mostly laudatory stories about American victories or documentaries on the awesome technology being used on the ground in Iraq.
Since Vietnam, it became standard practice among American military leadership to make sure that war was as invisible as possible. If it was not possible to keep the war behind the curtain, then it was incumbent upon the leadership to ensure that the operation was limited in scope and over before a significant protest movement could be mobilized. Thus President Clinton tap-danced around operations in Bosnia, a relatively well reported campaign, while he was also overseeing almost daily bombings of Iraq throughout his administration, virtually unreported.
American blood-lust was not whipped up again until after 9/11. This tragic event became the starting line for two of America’s longest and costliest conflicts. Looking back on the thousands of lives lost and the trillions of dollars spent, it is impossible to suggest that Americans have much to show for our efforts. We are not safer from terrorism. Our rights have not been protected, but rather trampled. Rose petals were not thrown at the feet of our soldiers as they liberated Afghanistan and Iraq from tyranny. Democracy did not blossom from the soil of nations bombed into oblivion. Al Qaeda was not destroyed, but rather used US violence as a public relations tool to recruit even more followers…
…and 9/11 still happened…
…and nothing can change that.
So now we are back where we started after the Paris Peace Conference 1919. Fatigued and disillusioned by the false promises that war will make things better, will restore honor, will enhance our credibility as a nation. We no longer blindly accept the legitimacy of war. And we shouldn’t accept war, for war is and always has been a lie. That we recognize this is a step toward a true civilization of man. That we never forget it…that is the key to the kingdom.
It’s certainly not the end of war. I’m optimistic, not delusional. Obama will almost certainly order a missile strike on Syria…just because, well, red lines and all that. However, Obama now has to content with the Iraq Syndrom. The fact that since Vietnam, indeed, since World War I and to an ever increasing degree since, our political leadership has been forced to conduct war largely in secret and has only been able to justify war in the face of direct attack is an indicator that we as a people are on the cusp of rejecting war in toto. We are also living in a world that is evolving in such a way that secrets, even secret wars, are increasingly difficult to keep. The peace movement can build on these two foundational elements to create a permanent critique of war, a perpetual rejection of militarism.
President Obama’s moral claims to a red line that was crossed when chemical weapons were used ring hollow to our ears. We demand proof before we act. We demand that if we act, our actions will save lives—an outcome that is in doubt. We demand that we act upon the correct antagonist. Many of us also see the inherent moral contradiction in a policy of using weapons of mass destruction, missiles and bombs, as a means of responding to the use of weapons of mass destruction, namely chemical weapons. What is the difference between sarin gas and cruise missiles, or cluster bombs? Many of us reject the notion that one way of killing is somehow more ethical than another.
That we, as a people, are making these demands upon our elected officials is another good sign. We allowed ourselves to be deceived into war twice as the new millennium dawned. The people are simply not willing to take anyone’s word for it any more (though to be honest, I have a feeling that if our President were a Republican, there would be significantly less controversy today). War is almost always premised on lies. This history cannot be denied and must not be forgotten. It is incumbent upon the peace movement to continue to educate the public about the great lie even in times of peace.
Since we have this foundation on which to build, the next steps are three-fold. First, we must protest the wars going on behind the curtain. The flying killer robots now employed in Pakistan, Yemen, and other unspecified US combat zones have no consciousness. They will never register as conscientious objectors. We must reject and condemn even remote control wars that are conducted in our name. Second, we must demand that our leadership formulate plans in response to direct attacks that do not involve war. The United States and our allies will almost certainly be attacked again in the future. If some entity has the grievance, the will and the means, they will attack. Our political leaders, our military, our flying killer robots cannot truly keep us safe. When attacked, we must respond, but we should respond in a sensible, tactical way that targets the guilty while protecting the innocent and preserving human rights. Don’t tell us this cannot be done. Thirdly, we as a people should demand policies that respect human boundaries and human rights; policies that promote a global community and reject international competition and build a sustainable global economy. Terrorists feed on hatred and anger, the very hatred and anger being perpetuated by unilateral war and flying killer robots raining destruction down on teenagers and wedding parties. Terrorism withers and dies in an environment of mutual respect and good will. American policies must promote that good will.
The seeds of world peace have been planted. Rejection of war is at hand. The lie is exposed. We reject the lie in Syria as we reject it throughout the world.
To quote General Butler.
To Hell with War!
The US Should Stop Blaming Snowden for its Own Inequities
As a teacher I hear all kinds of excuses for failure. A student, with typical adolescent melodrama, bemoans how difficult my tests are and how I’m ruining his grade. You see, I’m the reason that he is failing. It’s not the fact that, instead of studying, the student chose to play video games, or go to a party, or watch TV. So, clearly, the problem is me.
See how it works?
So I easily recognize the claims made by the US government as just another version of the “dog ate my homework.” Snowden’s revelations were embarrassing to the administrstion for a reason; the administration was doing question about stuff.it’s embarrassing when that stuff is revealed.however, the problem wasn’t the revelations but the stuff that was revealed.
So blaming snowden in for destroying the trust between the United States and its allies is a diversion. It’s no more valid than “the dog ate my homework.”
Snowden is not the reason why our allies are upset with us. Our allies are upset with us because we, meaning our representative government, was spying on our allies. The argument could be made that if you don’t want your allies upset, don’t spy on them.
of course, there’s an added element.
It’s naive to think that our allies didn’t know that we were spying on them. It’s equally naive to believe that our allies on spying on us. So in a way, Snowden’s revelation was the problem. Snowden’s crime is in putting presumably great nations in the absurd position of having to acknowledge publicly, and take umbrage over what they already largely see as the nature of international politics. Now nations all over the world are forced to put on an adequate performance before carrying on as always.
It’s a snowjob on the global scsle.
But it is not one of Edward Snowden’s making. He just opened the inconvenient conversation. This is not a matter of national security or compromised alliances. This issue is about the embarrassment of elite levels of government and putting protocols in place to ensure that such embarrassment never happens again.
But it is in the public best interest that such revelations continue to happen. Whistleblowers are the only available check against state and corporate secrecy.
Those who reveal secret abuses of power are the friends of society and of history
Corporal Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are quite the center of controversy. The claim made by the government and the corporate elite is that Manning and Snowden are traitors to their country and have placed our national security at risk by revealing state/corporate secrets. They should face the full severity of the law and be made an example of for those who might be so inclined to follow in their footsteps.
Is the United States now suddenly less safe due to these blown whistles? If you believe that we are, then you must believe that our enemies did not know about the collateral damage done by drones in their own communities, or the fact that people were being tortured by the US. Could it be that al Qaeda is so technologically backward that it did not realize that any information sent through communication lines could be intercepted by the NSA? But now the gig is up. Everyone now knows that the NSA has significant technical sophistication at hand with which to spy on anyone. Perhaps al Qaeda operatives have never gone to a movie, or bothered to look at the DARPA website.
Indeed, the vast majority of the government’s “national security” secrets, or corporate “proprietary secrets” have nothing to do with national or corporate security. They are about controlling bad press, about keeping embarrassing and even criminal information from reaching the public. Whistleblowers are not a threat to national security; they are a threat to elite privilege. When President Obama claims that he does not know how many innocent civilians were killed in Iraq, or by drone strikes, it is embarrassing when some whistle-blower comes forward and proves that that is not true. When companies claim that they are protecting our privacy, it’s embarrassing when it turns out that they are not. It’s not that we, the public, don’t know that politicians and corporations lie, but if we lack information we are inclined to give our leaders the benefit of the doubt. This is especially true in foreign relations or military matters. When we find out that our leaders really are lying just as much as we always thought, well, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Yet, it does put our political and economic leaders in an awkward position.
Of course, the scariest thing for our leadership is for the revelation of their secrets to become catalysts for change. When Daniel Ellsberg revealed the extent to which the US government lied to the American people about Vietnam he fanned the flames of an already growing anti-war movement. He was called a traitor and put on trial, facing over a hundred years if found guilty. His actions became a crucial part of a larger anti-war movement that may have taken some time to end Vietnam, but was certainly a force that kept American leaders from engaging in more extensive wars up until the post 9/11 era. The first President Bush had the so called Vietnam Syndrome in mind when he insisted upon a limited war against Iraq during his administration. Who knows how many lives were saved?
When Mark Felt, A.K.A Deep Throat, spilled the beans about the extent of the infamous Watergate break-in, he was instrumental in taking down a president. Certainly, the cover-ups and secrecy of the Nixon Administration had nothing to do with national security. Watergate, like most of the secrets kept by those in power, was more about control than it was about protecting American citizens.
After all, did American citizens have to be protected from the knowledge that their country was torturing people in Abu Ghraib? Perhaps the claim could be made that such information could be used by our enemies to justify their violent actions against us. On the other hand, if torturing people is fuel for our enemies, let alone illegal and immoral, then don’t torture people.
When I was a kid one of my teachers taught me that if I felt that I had to cover something up, keep it secret, or lie about it, then it was probably wrong. We don’t keep secret the things we are proud of. We keep secrets for our own advantage. Secrecy is a selfish act of self-empowerment. That is true at personal as well as the institutional level.
That’s not to say that legitimate national security secrets don’t exist. Of course they do. Nobody is suggesting that things like troop movements, strength assessments or infiltration of real terrorist groups should be revealed to the world. Indeed, Snowden and Manning never revealed such information. The power to keep secrets, like any other power, is likely to be abused. That’s the benefit of whistle-blowers to society and to history. It is the daring of whistle-blowers, in the face of astronomical power and the potential for truly dire consequences, that serves as a check against elite power.
As such a check, they must be crushed. For their efforts, there will be no forgiveness and no mercy unless from the humiliated power elite unless we as a public demand it. When Daniel Ellsberg stood trial for the crime of revealing truths that were embarrassed by the elite, the fact that he was already acquitted by a public outraged by the abuse of power he revealed, was certainly a factor in his legal acquittal in the end.
Unfortunately, it appears that we as a public don’t really care about the value and courage of our whistle-blowers either now or in the future. That’s unfortunate. There may be a few more Snowdens out there, but considering the popular ambivalence meeting Manning and Snowden, an ambivalence that puts these two men in danger, it’s likely that future whistle-blowers will think twice about taking such risks.
This is to the benefit of those in power, and to the detriment of the public that deserves to know the truth about the crimes our political and corporate elite are committing in our name.
As it stands, Manning and Snowden are likely to be acquitted only by history.
Why Austerian Economic Policies are not “mistaken.” They are strategic!
Contemporary Keynesian economists are beside themselves. I have an image of Paul Krugman and Dean Baker et al. trying to cover the bald spots from where they’ve pulled the hair out of their heads. They just can’t understand why, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, austerity measures and debt reduction are the dominant paradigms of the day as opposed to public investment and stimulus (or, as Krugman argues, Economics 101). Krugman astutely refers to austerity and deficit hawkishness as “Zombie ideas,” or theories that are constantly being shot down by the evidence, but refuse to die. He and his popular contemporaries inundate us with clear data and sensible explanations of otherwise complex theory proving what our experience already demonstrates. Austerity is the wrong approach to our current economic crisis, and the “Confidence Fairy” is never going to come.
Their economic thinking is, of course, sound. The Keynesians are right. We are in a liquidity trap in which central banks, in our case the Fed, can’t decrease interest rates any more to encourage investment and spending. Families that are lucky enough to have semi-stable jobs are overleveraged or unwilling to spend in uncertain times. Business owners, without a demand base, are unwilling to invest in product or hire employees. No amount of tax breaks or deregulation, or spending cuts for that matter, will change this fact. It is clear that the Lesser Depression is driven by stagnant demand, and if consumers are unwilling to spend, then the government must. Period.
Yes, this would mean deficit spending, but with record low interest now is the time to invest in needed projects and programs. This is not new age radical thought. It is well established and confirmed theory straight out the standard text. We know what caused the Great Recession and we know how to fix it. Now!
“Well that’s great!”
“So why aren’t we doing it?”
Ah, that is the question.
This is one question that Keynesians are ill prepared to answer. They shake their heads and bemoan the fact that we are repeating the “mistakes” of the Hoover Administration. They point out that the austerity paradigm has failed everywhere it’s been tried, from Japan to England, to Ireland (the poster child for austerity). The policies are definitively wrong-headed.
From an economic perspective they are right to be flummoxed. It defies scientific logic to single-mindedly pursue patently inadequate policies if the goal is to turn the economy around. That is where the impeccable logic of the economists leads them astray. To understand the irrational magic that keeps the Zombies stumbling along, one needs a bit of the madness that is the sociological imagination.
The economists, and many others, make three incorrect assumptions in their analysis.
First, economists assume that the so-called Austerians are making a mistake and the government, in following along, is promoting bad policy. Those in authority are not blind to history. They know the consequences of their small government, Hayak/Rand inspired dogma. They are not stupid or ill informed. So why are they pursuing these obviously failed policies? They promote them because they effectively achieve the goals of the corporate elite whom they serve. Their thinking is not mistaken—it’s strategic.
In a strategic sense, austerity policies make perfect sense on the part of the elite. Pounding the drum of fiscal “responsibility” and deficit reduction during a time of economic contraction is advocating freedom from regulation, consolidation of power, and the disempowerment of working people. For the economic elite, taxes, regulations and social safety nets are costs from which they derive no benefit. They are, in other words, bad investments. Especially when the truth is that the corporate elite can get everything that they want and more without these impediments.
The existence of a social safety net rankles the elite. Their own social safety is, of course, assured. They don’t need any stinking laws or programs. They just need to make obnoxious profits, collapse the economy of the entire world, and wait for the taxpayer bailout—from which they will give themselves huge bonuses in the name of quality retention. They don’t need Social Security, or Medicare, or the like, so these things are not only bad investments, they are counterproductive.
Social safety nets, by providing security for working people, are empowering and freeing, decreasing their dependence on employers (arguably increasing dependence on the government, but that’s another matter). A working man who can quit his job without worrying about losing his health care, or who knows he will be able to retire at a certain age, or has an economic cushion in the event that he loses his job, is a liability. On the other hand, an employer who fears for his future if he should step out of line at the workplace is nice and docile, a great investment. People who are free to make use of public investments to improve their social standing are potential competitors. Strategically, it makes no sense for the powerful to empower others. The key is to keep working people as low, as pathetic, as dependent as possible.
Um…without them killing you.
That’s where the government comes in. The only social safety net of value to the corporate elite is a strong police force, a powerful military and an expansive prison system. All the better if they can get working men and women to pay for these things. After all, corporations profit from the expenditures in the form of military defense contracts, weapons and body armor sales to the state, and privately run prisons. It’s quite the set-up.
Currently, only about eight percent of people born in the lowest wealth quintile will work their way up to the top quintile. For the power elite, who reside within the top percentile…or even the top percentile of the top percentile, this minimal social mobility is too close for comfort. They must defend their social position.
The next misconception that economists assume is that the economy is a monolithic whole. Granted, I’m not an economist, so I’m sure I can be taken to task for this statement. Surely, economists in their studies may break the economy down into component parts, but they still refer to “the economy” in the singular when they address a lay audience. We rely on popular intellectuals like Krugman etal. to educate us. For the most part, they do a fantastic job. Presenting the economy as a unified whole may be an effective way of breaking down otherwise complex economic theory, but it neglects a big part of the story. In fact, the market structure can be best described as having at least two distinct “economies” if not more.
The most influential economy is that within which the wealthy live and do business and move their respective politicians around the economic chessboard. This economy is doing just fine. In fact, it’s thriving in this recession. The stock market continues to grow. Profits are up, many at record levels. Effective tax rates remain low for the Koch class. Workers are nice and desperate for jobs and are less inclined to rock the boat with their pesky unions and demands for higher wages and benefits. They are willing to work for less so long as they have jobs. Unions, the only check against corporate abuse, are going the way of the dodo. All corporate misdeeds are federally guaranteed. Yes, the government has sworn upside down and backwards that they will not give any more bailouts, but we know how robust political promises are. Corporate elites and their lobbyists laugh at the unassembled erector set known to us as Dodd-Frank. The government has demonstrated time and again that they will bail out the 1% and pass the costs down to working people, school children and pre-schoolers without asking a single dime from the wealthy.
Why on Earth would the elite and those “very serious people” who work for the elite want to change the status quo? It works so well for them.
The second “economy” is the productive sector of the economy—working men and women. This is the sector that bears the brunt and ultimately pays for the inevitable economic calamities caused by the elite. The dirty little secret that the elite do not want known, however, is that they are entirely dependent upon the labors of the productive economy. The wealthy do not drive the economy, they respond to it. It’s the labors of every day men and women that drives the economy. Instead, the productive class is held hostage to the so called “job destroyers creators” in both body and mind. The resulting alienation, hopelessness and irrational divisiveness among common people plays into the hands of the elite.
Finally, economists assume that it is the government’s function to promote the general welfare of all of its citizens. After all, it is in the job description. From this perspective, the government is blatantly derelict in its duty in pursuing contractionary polices when they know full well that expansionary policies are necessary. It is malpractice most cruel.
The function of government, however, is never to promote the general welfare, certainly not to consider the needs of its common citizens. The function of government is, rather, to promote the interests of the elite and to protect them from the consequences of their own avarice. Occasionally, it becomes contingent upon the government to negotiate between the two economic sectors. This happens when the productive sector takes arms against the elite sector and determines to tear it down. Sometimes the government uses force against such trespass, as in 1877; sometimes when the common man becomes too extensive for slaughter, the government institutes equalizing reforms, such as during the New Deal.
Regardless, the government is always the representative of the elite. Government of the people is a useful fiction pulled out for inaugural addresses and parades. Austerity is the American economic policy, with few minor adjustments made for the sake of campaign cosmetics, because the corporate elite want austerity. Their representatives, bought and paid for, will do as they’re told. What’s more, they will make sure that nothing even close to the New Deal ever happens again. It took them sixty years to tear down the hard fought reforms of the thirties. They are not about to go back now.
Austerity has little to do with economics outside of the devastating effects it has on most Americans. Those promoting austerity are not just pushing a wrong-headed agenda based on an almost religious faith in Randian dogma. They are pursuing an agenda in which the economic elite have invested a great deal and for which they reward their spokespeople handsomely. It is not an economic policy. If it were, austerity zombies would remain in the grave where they were buried with the publication of the General Theory. Austerity is a power strategy…and, so far, a successful one at that.
Note: Just as I was about to publish this blog I noticed a couple of posts from Paul Krugman. Since I used his name in the title and referenced his work quite often it’s only fair that I point out that he has recently offered some institutional analysis of austerity, here and here. Damn you, Krugman, for stealing my thunder! Well, to a certain extent. His analysis is not quite so radical as mine.
The 2012 Election and the Laws of Institutions
Two years ago, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made a surprisingly forthcoming and honest statement. He stated outright, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” This statement has, on and off, been a centerpiece of Democratic criticism of the Republican Party. After all, shouldn’t service to the nation, making responsible decisions in the best interest of the country and faithfully executing one’s duties in the best interests of the constituency be primary for any elected official? One might even forgive McConnell if he said, “the single most important thing we want to achieve is the promotion of Republican values.” To state that mission one is to take down the President, however, is way out of bounds, or at least should be.
Well, perhaps, but it is not surprising from a sociological interpretation. As a leading member of a powerful institution, McConnell was expressing nothing more than what I call the Second Law of Institutions. Institutions, like the Republican Party, or the Democratic Party, can be looked at as singular actors within a social matrix of power relations. As such, it is the primary function of any institution to perpetuate itself (The first law) and to expand its power (the second law).¹ An institution expands it power by increasing its control and access to the productivity of individuals, hence government institutions, among the most powerful in any given society, are locked in perpetual conflict with each other to maximize their own power. Party control of the executive institutional apparatus of the American government is one of the most powerful positions in the world. So it comes as no surprise that McConnell, with the backing of the Republican Party, wants to unseat President Obama. As it stands, doing so would vouch this vast power conveyance to the Republican Party, as no other institution is in a position to fulfill that role.
It has nothing to do with ethics. This is a purely rational, institutional strategy. It must also be pointed out that the Laws of Institutions holds true for all institutions. They are equally true for Republicans and Democrats, governments and religions, families and businesses, etc.
To accomplish this goal, the Republican Party developed a strategy of complete obstructionism. The gist of this strategy is that all failings of government are attributed to the President, the head of the institution. Shutting down congress, specifically the Senate, may result in the lowest popularity ratings for Congress in history, but the reality is that there is only one Congress. Barring a revolutionary movement that destroys Congress and establishes a new legislative authority, Congress, as an institution, is secureso far! The President, unlike the presidency, however, is fungible. It’s impossible to replace every member of Congress. It’s relatively easy to replace the President. So the President bears the brunt of responsibility for the state of the government.
So Republicans could, with relatively little sacrifice (though there will be some associated costs), gridlock the national government with the hope of unseating the incumbent president. The best data to demonstrate the existence of the Gridlock Strategy is in the number of filibusters in this congress as compared to past congresses. (Click the graph for the source). What we see here is an institutional strategy of gridlock. Because of the filibuster and Republican intransigence the Senate is where ideas go to die. It has gotten to the point that it is understood that a bill must have sixty votes to even be considered in the Senate. And Republicans guarantee that no bills supported by the President or Democrats fulfill that requirement.
Based on the latest polling results, this strategy might just work. Granted, based on Electoral College projections, Obama will likely win on November 6th; it’s a coin toss, however, for him to win the popular vote. A slight nudge one way or another in some key statesindeed in some key countiescould change the course of the election and hand it Gov. Mitt Romney.
My biggest fear, should this happen, is that a Romney win would be the end of effective governance in the United States. Given the laws of institutions, if the Gridlock Strategy works, Democrats would be foolish not to use it for their own advancement. If Democrats lose the Senate, which will almost certainly not happen (a cost to Republicans for the Gridlock Strategy) they could use the filibuster just as effectively as Republicans. Republicans would be foolish to allow the filibuster to continue into the 112th congress under such conditions. With Republicans in control of the House and White House, Democratic proposals go nowhere. So the United States reaches an impasse in which the federal government is incapable of action. How long can such a destabilizing culture last before the nation faces a severe political crisis?
Government, as an institution in the modern world, perpetuates itself through a veneer of legitimacy. Once this veneer is torn away, the results can be profoundly destabilizing as citizens feel that they are on their own facing an uncertain future. Republicans embraced a strategy for institutional empowerment, but may well have torn the very fabric of legitimacy which they need to exercise the power that they win.
¹ I am currently working on a project called “Democracy is of the Streets” in which I elaborate the Laws of Institutions. I might even finish it. For now, the Laws of Institutions are as follows: 1. The Primary Function of an Institution is the perpetuation of the institution. 2. The Secondary Function of an Institution is to empower itself. 3. All other goals, including the expressed manifest function of the institutions (eg. Good governance) is tertiary.
The Rise of a New Power Elite: The Intelligence Industrial Complex
Note: This is actually an old blog that became a corrupted file. By the time I fixed the file the moment for posting was lost. In light of recent events, such as the National Defense Authorization Act and Obama’s intrusive revisions of the Domestic Investigation and Operations Guide, I figured that the subject area is still very relevant. The torture and distortion of our Bill of Rights did not end with the Bush Administration. The last three years has demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that the Obama Administration is picking up in Bush’s footsteps and even expanding the fortress society beyond anything his predecessor could have accomplished. That these trespasses against basic human rights can be justified by invoking the never-ending war on terrorism is just as bogus for President Obama as it was for President Bush.
If you were to design a surveillance system for keeping our nation safe from terrorists how would you do it? You might start by analyzing the data that you already have regarding terrorists and terrorist organizations. If you have good relationships with allied nations, you might also be able to tap into their databases to reinforce your own. From there, you might want to establish legal surveillance operations on known terrorist organizations and, as further networks are exposed to your analysis, expand your surveillance to include those branches.
If you follow this method, you can maximize your use of intelligence resources by focusing on known threats. You are also minimizing the probability that your system will trammel the rights and expectations of privacy among innocent citizens. You won’t eliminate this threat, of course, as social networks are often very complex and intertwined. It’s certain that some innocent bystanders will be caught under your surveillance microscope, their privacy can restored through new legal means that take current technology and historical contingencies into account and are designed to protect the innocent. This is a sensible system. One that recognizes the importance of surveillance in maintaining the national security while at the same time minimizing illegal and immoral intrusions on the rights of innocent people. Nothing radical here.
Now, let’s say you wanted to create a surveillance system designed to maximize and extend elite power throughout society. How would you design that system? Well, such a system would need access to as much information about as many people as is technologically possible. Every possible intrusion into the lives of individuals, regardless of their affiliations, would have to be maximized. Computer technologies that could filter and sort countless bytes of information would have to be developed. Such a system would have to remain secret, with no accountability to the general public.
In 1974 the French social theorist Michel Foucault used a prison designed by the humanitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham to elaborate a new model of power dynamics. The prison was called a panopticon, and Foucault’s theory became panopticism. The panopticon was an idea for a humane prison designed so that a few guards could keep an eye on all prisoners at all times. The idea was that if prisoners knew that there was a certainty that they could be seen at all times then they would adjust their behavior accordingly despite the fact that the guards were not necessarily always looking at them. Prisoners would govern their own behaviors without physical coercion from the guards. It’s the power of the gaze.
The Foucaultian idea of panopticism works much the same way for society as a whole. If people know that they can be watched at all times then they will act as if they are being watched at all times. They will be less inclined to participate in acts of deviance or crime. In essence, they will govern their own behaviors in accordance to the dictates of the state without the state having to resort to militaristic technologies of coercion. And, just as with Bentham’s prison in which the guards cannot be seen by the prisoners, a Foucaultian panopticon must operate under the awareness of the population, yet under strict secrecy. In other words, one must know that they can be watched at any given time, yet can never see who is watching and when. “In order to be exercised, this power had to be given the instrument of permanent, exhaustive, omnipresent surveillance capable of making all visible as long as it could itself remain invisible.” (214)
Of course, Foucault was talking about rationalized (bureaucratic) institutional power. He saw the regimens of schools, hospitals, clinics, prisons and the military as a non-coercive, though all-encompassing technology of power. This was the 1970’s and the level of technology had not developed to the point it has today. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the information age, technology is such that a cyberpanopticism is not only possible, but imminent. The ability of the elite to record and analyze the everyday routines of our lives is at hand. New technologies of power, the likes of which Foucault could only have imagined, are no longer relegated to paranoid science fiction novels. The future is now.
According to author James Bamfield the government and its corporate allies have built and are expanding a surveillance infrastructure that can subject every citizen to the power of the gaze. In the meantime, laws are being written to ensure that the exercise of this power remains beyond public scrutiny and outside of any conventions of checks and balances. This vast infrastructure is being constructed on the premise of fighting terrorism. If such was the case then we could expect that it would be designed much in the manner as the first program described in this essay. It is not. The intelligence infrastructure captained by the NSA is not merely targeting known terrorist groups and individuals in an ever expanding examination of affiliated networks. Indeed, it is being designed to intercept every communication, every commercial transaction, every movement of individual citizens regardless of affiliation. At the same time, legislation is being created to keep those involved in intelligence gathering secret and under the wing of government protection.
A New Member of the Power Elite
In 1954, sociologist C. Wright Mills published the results of his extensive research into the power elite. Mills recognized that the power elite was a collection of institutions working together to perpetuate its own class interests. At the top of this pyramid was corporate executives who despite the supposition that they are expected to compete, are actually better served by cooperating with regard to their class interests. Next the executive branch of government, the President and his cabinet, and the high ranking members of the executive bureaucracy. Then there is the top brass of the military, headquartered in the Pentagon and represented by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
According to Mills, these three institutions share common interests despite what may appear to be very different functions. Indeed, since the advent of the military industrial complex as exposed by none other than President Dwight D. Eisenhower, corporate, political and military power are conjoined in ever tightening bonds. “As each of these domains has convinced with the others, as decisions tend to become total in their consequences, the leading men in each of the three domains of powerthe warlords, the corporation chieftains, the political directoratetend to come together, to form the power elite of America.” (Mills 9)
Indeed, they do more than come together. In fact, they overlap in significant ways. The corporations fund political campaigns. Often they hedge their bets by funding both parties. In exchange for important funds the politician agrees to give access to corporate lobbyists, pander to the corporation’s legislative wet dreams and appoint corporate representatives to high level cabinet positions. Corporations have also created institutional allies in the military, offering to add industrial might to the military machine. Corporations win major contracts to produce the needs of the military. In exchange for military support politicians perpetuate the corporate projects regardless of their use.
The military thus becomes a major player in the economy. To further the convergence of interests at this highest level, corporations provide comfortable jobs and exorbitant salaries to retired high ranking officials and military officers. The military continues to grow while the executive continues to feed valuable contracts to corporations that, in turn, provide political and social security to both. It’s a cozy relationship.
Now, Mills wrote The Power Elite in the mid-fifties. I’d like to think that if he were conducting this research today he would add a fourth element to this trifecta. In the 1950’s the intelligence community was a nascent institution getting its feet wet in the international arena. It was accurate to describe the intelligence community as a fraternal order of ivy league school mates playing a dangerous game of international espionage to greater or lesser effect. Despite the retrospectively obvious distinctions of class in this arena, it’s forgivable that Mills did not include them in his description of the power elite.
Fifty years later, the intelligence community has graduated from fraternity to fully fledged member in good standing of the power elite. Wars are no longer defined by the movement of armies, battle lines, logistics and tactics. The postmodern army runs on information processing, satellite surveillance, smart weapons and computer hubs often thousands of miles away from the battlefield. Intelligence is also a central aspect of civil law enforcement as the nation is carpeted with surveillance cameras and listening devices. Communication signals can be pulled from the air or culled from convergences of fiber optic cables in select cities in the United States. This communication infrastructure is owned and operated by corporations, already members of the power elite.
As it stands, communications corporations allow intelligence officials to have access to their information. The executive then distributes this information to civil law enforcement and the military. For their assistance in spying the executive guarantees secrecy and immunity to prosecution for providing information on innocent citizens whose rights have been ignored. High ranking intelligence officials are often pulled from the corporate world, and again, cushy chairs on the boards of directors for intelligence firms await high ranking government and military officials. In return, the executive finds more and more reasons to expand the intelligence community, often by creating a secretive and ubiquitous enemy than can only be defeated by surrendering our privacy. Such an enemy is also a boon to the military industrial complex.
Modern surveillance technology and refined intelligence gathering sciences are used to broker the intelligence community a seat at the elite table. In a Foucaultian leap the intelligence community also offers the power elite the prospects of a true social panopticon. By being able to keep an eye on our every move, our every purchase, our every communication, the power elite can motivate our actions.
Oh, it’s not so much that citizens who know they are being watched are going to govern their behaviors in the Foucaultian sense. I think Foucault took some theoretical leaps here. Rather, the power elite can collect vast amounts of data on us as a population. They can then use this data to learn what is motivating us, our concerns, our fears. Then, they can shape their paradigms, political speeches, advertisements, justifications for war, in such a way that they know we will respond to their liking. They can legislate our fears into reality. They can sell us solutions to our perceived problems, increasing our dependence on the corporate machine. Total Information Awareness equates to total knowledge control.
Our intelligence infrastructure is not designed to fight a war on terror. It is designed to control the motivations of society. Surveillance is not a technology for keeping us safe. Rather it is a method for perpetuating elite interests that are contradictory to the interests of the commons. As the intelligence community is further integrated into the highest echelons of society, the power elite becomes more mononolithic.
That does not mean that the prospects of resistance are lost. Indeed, it requires that those of us who dissent from the concentration of wealth and power demonstrate more courage to speak the truth. We must demand more from the institutions that are supposed to serve our interests. The very first thing we must defeat is the fear that the power elite perpetuates by committing us to war and false patriotism. If we are not to be the pawns of the powerful we must not participate in their games.
Economic tyranny is no different from political tyranny
I received a call from a former college student of mine the other day. I use blogs in my college courses to inspire discussion and interaction. I allow students to express opinions so long as those opinions are supported with data, sound, logical thinking, and sociological perspectives. In this case, the student contacted me and asked to have her blogs removed from the site. She was one semester from graduating and feared that the opinions she had expressed on my class blog-site would paint her as a, “right-wing extremist” and handicap her ability to get a job in her chosen profession (I do not know what that profession is).
Of course, I followed through with her request, and eliminated the “offending” blogs. In fact, her opinions were well thought out and supported with data. They were what I would call right of center opinions, but far from “extremist.” Also, I’m not really convinced that these posts were a threat to her profession.
Regardless, this student perceived that her opinions made public would lead to serious negative consequences. Rather than take that chance she chose to censor herself. This is an example of governmentality at work. In other words, no force or coercion from the state was needed. Only the perception of negative social consequence was required to convince this young woman to censor herself. That the threat may not have been real is of no consequence. This student was, in Foucault’s words, bound by the chains of her own ideas.
If this was a case of a bright young woman fearful of government reprisal for exercising her right to free speech we would call this tyranny. That this is the consequence of economic power, however, makes this no less tyrannical. In the United States we pride ourselves on the assumption that we will not be persecuted by the state for expressing our opinions, that we have a Constitutionally protected right to free speech.
Of what value is this freedom, however, if it can be squelched by those who control the purse-strings. How many thoughtful young people are out there, preparing to enter into one of the harshest marketplaces in our history, afraid to speak their minds lest they lose what little opportunity is left in this, the wealthiest nation ever?
In his history defining and seminal work, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville explored the ins and outs of early nineteenth century American democracy. Of de Tocqueville’s concerns about American governance the most famous was a critique that has become known as the Tyranny of the Majority. According to Tocqueville, the majority in America is “omnipotent.” This omnipotence ultimately translates into oppression over the rights of the minority, blindness to ancilary issues not within the aegis of the majority and legislative instability. “Hence the majority in the United States enjoys immense actual power together with a power of opinion that is almost as great.”
De Tocqeville’s criticisms of American democracy are valid. Democracy in America should be required reading for all Americans. Most especially to one who studies the sociology of knowledge is the nineteenth century philosopher’s unwitting nod to postmodernism when he suggests that the tyranny of the majority can be even more oppressive than any monarchy by virtue of its ability to define the very ideas of the citizens.
“The most absolute sovereigns in Europe today are powerless to prevent certain thoughts hostile to their authority from silently circulating through their states and even within their courts. The same cannot be said of America: As long as the majority remains in doubt, people talk, but as soon as it makes up its mind once and for all, everyone falls silent…I know of no country where there is in general less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America.”
In going back to the well thumbed pages of my volume of Democracy in America I am still humbled by de Tocqueville’s analysis. It’s no wonder that sociologists claim his as one of our own. However, I’m left to wonder just how de Tocqueville would analyze our current debate on health care reform.
No doubt de Toqueville would be confused. Throughout the health care debate poll after poll demonstrates that majority opinion supports the foundation of a public option to control costs by providing an alternative to private insurance. This, despite the negative PR blitz of this last summer and the veracity of a Tea Party movement venomously against health care reform or the prospect of even the slightest government interference in the free market. If ever a majority had made up its mind it is with regard to the public option.
Yet the fate of the public option is in peril? How could that be? How could de Tocqueville’s famous analysis be so far off in this (and many other matters, but that’s a different blog)?
Of course, we can’t be too hard on a nineteenth century social commentator. How could he have ever predicted the rise of what I now call Pathological Liebermanism or The Tyranny of the Lieberman. This is a phenomenon in which the processes of American democracy invests disproportionate power into the hands of one elected official (in this case “Droopy” Joe Lieberman, but also Ben Nelson). The majority of Americans support the public option. The majority of legislators support the public option. But majorities are not good enough. Individuals like Lieberman and Nelson can bring the “omnipotence of the majority” to flaccid humility.
We must remember that our founders and their immediate heirs had very little regard for the will of the majority. They established norms through which they could thwart “mob rule” in the chambers of congress. Among those rules was the filibuster. And the filibuster has become the weapon of choice for minority political parties. Now, to be honest, I’ve supported the filibuster when it was being used to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. On the other hand, the filibuster was also used to delay crucial civil rights legislation. It seems that we have a love/hate relationship with this particular Senate rule. In matters of health reform including a public option, an issue which I support, it is maddening to think that one senator, a Lieberaman or a Nelson, can stall the will of the majority of Americans.
It is equally maddening that such senators can, in essence, put their filibuster busting potential on the sale block. In Nelson’s case it was an agreement that the federal government would pick up the tab of health care reform for the citizens of Nebraska…and only Nebraska. Why should the people of Nebraska benefit at the expense of the rest of Americans who would have to pay more to make up for the absence of that state? Because Ben Nelson won’t shut up? In Lieberman’s case it was the elimination of popular reforms, the public option and the expansion of Medicare. Why should Lieberman, a man who himself enjoys the benefits of a single payer, government run health program, be able to deny the same for the rest of us all by himself?
Indeed, de Tocqueville would be obliged to add a chapter or at least a long addendum to his master work to address the Lieberman Syndrome (another cool name for what we are witnessing).
De Tocqueville was also not privy to the idea of modern lobbying and money politics. In almost every case the politician with the largest campaign coffers wins. De Tocqueville’s assertion that our legislators change rapidly, leading to instability in our houses of government has turned out to be false. Indeed, the majority of seats in congress are considered “safe” seats in which the sitting representative will almost certainly be re-elected. This fact, however, rather than stabilizing our legislature as one might predict using de Tocqueville’s reasoning, has lead to an entrenchment of ideas and ultimately to an institutional polarity that one might suggest is even more destabilizing in effect.
This polarity is linked to campaign contributions. Think about it. A two party system is much easier and cheaper to fund than one in which multiple parties and ideas are competing for recognition. As it stands, most corporations hedge their bets by donating large sums of money to both parties. Imagine if there were three or four or even five parties demanding such control!
The polarity between liberal and conservative is also fed by campaign contributors. In the health care debate The Center for Responsive Politics has done interesting research on campaign contributions and position in health care reform. They created a ratio between contributions from labor organizations and contributions from health care corporations and compared this ratio to the voting records of our senators. Those senators with higher ratios, thus higher comparable contributions from labor, were more likely to vote yes to the Senate bill. Of course, they were also more likely to be Democrat, indicating a traditional tendency for labor unions to contribute to this party. Those who voted against the bill were more likely to have received larger contributions from the health industry. It is important to understand, however, both health and labor organizations are sure to hedge their bets by contributing large sums to both parties. It is also paramount that the money does not necessarily represent a “majority” view. (1)
When it comes to money and health care those who are least satisfied with the status quo are almost certainly the least likely to contribute large sums to politicians. Labor organizations such as unions may have larger coffers to represent the interests of working people, but this is only a segment of the population so affected. Obviously the tyranny of the majority is not driving this debate, nor is the majority in any way “omnipotent” in the de Tocquevillian understanding of the term.
The health care debate might help us define American politics in a post de Tocquevillian way. It is the Lieberman Doctrine (Yes, coining terms is my new hobby!) that seems to be the new “omnipotent tyranny” influencing contemporary American democracy.
Now this post is not a condemnation of the filibuster, nor is it a confirmation of the legitimacy of majority rule. In this matter I happen to have the comfort of speaking with the majority. That is not always the case. When I do represent the minority opinion I want to have processes in place, like the filibuster, to protect my interests. I also recognize the reality that the majority is not always right. But certainly these ideas must be revisited.
It is the contention of the Journal of a Mad Sociologist that any great disparity in power, regardless of the holder[s] of such power, is a danger to democracy and humanity. The concentration of power in the hands of the majority has the potential to be just as oppressive as the concentration of power in the hands of Joe Lieberman. Neither should have the power to over-ride what this outlet has defined as a human right, the right to health care.
(1) In most cases this moneyed politics tends to limit the differences between parties. In health care, however, polarization is the result as a conflict between funding sources emerges to define the debate.
Have you ever been a part of a group in which secrets were being shared? Where were you in relation to those secrets? Were you the person sharing the secrets? The person learning the secrets? Or were you out of the secrets loop? Perhaps you were the subject of the secrets. Regardless, where you are in relation to the secrets being shared is a definitive characteristic of one’s status within a group or sub-group because secrets are a mechanism of power.
The same is true at the national or societal level, though admittedly the dynamics become much more complex. In any given society there are those who learn and share information, those who receive the information, those who are the subjects of that information and those who are not. What’s more, this flow of information is typically directed upward along the social hierarchy, with those at the top, whom we can call the power elite receiving the most information and those at the bottom receiving the least.
Those at the top of the ladder have access to the most sophisticated technologies and infrastructure for gathering, disseminating and analyzing information while those at the bottom are mostly dependent upon the elite to share their information. And this is where secrecy comes in. The more the power elite can control the dissemination of information to the lower tiers of the society, the more power they can incorporate into their social groups. Indeed, one measure of power may very well be one’s ability to control the flow of information. Power may very well be defined as the product between how much information one can glean from other groups and how much information can be kept secure from the knowledge of other groups.
The Bush Administration knew this very well. They ran a tight ship of secrecy, making sure that very little leaked from the inner sanctums of their power groups. Everything was subject to strict control, to the point where Vice President Cheney actually invented his own Top Secret categorization. To avoid sharing information the Bush team claimed executive privilege. When that didn’t work, Cheney actually defined himself as part of the legislature, not the executive, therefore not subject to judicial demands for executive information while at the same time claiming executive privilege. The Bush Tango around releasing information was almost a thing of beauty.
At the same time, no other administration placed so much emphasis on gathering information on as may people as is humanly possible while excluding as many from the flow of information as could happen. It was under the Bush Administration that Total Information Awareness was developed, shot down by Congress, then forgotten, then renamed and passed on to the NSA. Those laws designed to protect the privacy of American citizens. No problem. Ignore them, undermine them, undercut them and make sure no one knows what we are doing. Those who do know, such as the gang of eight legislators in the House and Senate intel. committees, impose the strictest secrecy enforced by law, or political maneuvering to guarantee that no one knows the extent of the information being gathered. Otherwise, order the CIA to conduct program without even telling Congress. If Congress asks questions lie.
Now we have a new administration inheriting the power infrastructure from what may, by the algorithm defined above, be defined as the most powerful in the history of this country. Will Obama take a step back and scale down these huge discrepancies of power. He has promised that his would be a transparent administration. In some ways maybe it is. On the other hand, the infrastructure, the rationalization, the experts are all there for his use, and Obama does not seem interested in dismantling such a colossal power structure. If Lord Acton was correct about the corrupting effects of power, then we must admit that Obama has inherited the most corrupting infrastructure in history. Power institutions do not have a history of disempowering themselves.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seeing the opportunity, grabbed a very angry tiger by the tail. His support of current President Ahmadinejad, and his dire warnings against further protests exacerbates the problem of political legitimacy in Iran. As the leader of Iran, Khamenei had to make a stand. He had three main choices: concede, conciliate or crush. It looks like he is choosing crush. His speech made clear that he will support the incumbent president (regardless of the fact that he’s a whackjob) and will unleash a bloodbath against those who contradict his wishes.
I can’t speak as to Khamenei’s motivations for making the “crush” decision. As a Grand Ayatollah he is a top expert in Islamic law and expected to apply Sharia to every day life. Since I’m not an expert in any sense with regard to Sharia it may well be that his support for Ahmadinejad is consistent with his position and title. I do, however, know a thing or two about politics in general as well as the dissemination of power in a society. Power seems to be a strong motivating factor. Khamenei’s stance seems inspired more by Machiavelli than Mohammad. If so, he should understand that the Italian political philosopher is not the final say in politics.
Legitimacy is crucial in running a country. Brutal force does not carry the day in the long run. Those who make the nation work, the shop keepers and day laborers and teachers and soldiers must recognize those in power as having a legitimate claim to that power. It is obvious that the legitimacy of the power structure of Iran is in dire straights. Though it’s clear that Ahmadinejad has a broad following, his presence at the top of the domestic power structure is polarizing. In essence, his presence, and to be fair, the presence of his key rival Moussavi, are dividing the Iranian house. By embracing the status quo, Khamenei may be derailing the legitimacy of his government in the eyes of the people. Resorting to violence may quell the protests, but will not re-establish lost legitimacy. It will only fuel resentment on the part of the electorate.
But there’s an added dimension to this that is not getting much press. Iran is a theocracy. It is supposed to be run according to Sharia. The ultimate representative of Sharia in Iran is the Grand Ayatollah Khamenei. Since there is no separation between “church” and state in Iran, that which destroys the legitimacy of the state institution may also destabilize the religious institution.
Religious institutions, especially those as cohesive as Shi’a Islam, have a great ace up their sleeve. The legitamacy of religious institutions are vouched by God, or Allah. But that lends one to ask, could Allah have stirred up such a hornet’s nest? For any institution there are dissidents who question the status quo. All it takes is a widespread issue, such as a contested election, to reduce the legitimacy of the power elite and increase the legitimacy of the dissidents. This could, ultimately lead to a paradigm shift. Could Iran, and ultimately Shi’a institutions, be facing such a paradigm shifting crisis? We shall see.
The policies of Grand Ayatolla Ali Khamenei, resorting to blunt threats of violence, is unlikely to squash the seeds of dissent that could shift the ideological make-up of the country, and perhaps the region.
In a related matter: Kudos to President Obama for refusing to stir this particular stink. Let’s let the people decide the direction of their own nation. What a concept!
Because we have to defend ourselves? How can we possibly defend ourselves if we cut our defense budget? You liberal wacko!
Gee, I don’t know. How do countries like Switzerland or Finland defend themselves with military expenditures about 1/100th and 1/200th that of the United States? Oh, yeah! They don’t mess with other countries. So I guess the real question is how can we defend ourselves and still be able to screw with other countries if we do not have a colossal military “defense” budget.
Let’s do a little mental experiment using the chart below.
This shows the top three military spenders in the world as well as the average military expenditures of the Rest of the World (actually, the next 25 military spenders after to top three, so Switzerland and Finland are not included).
This graph depicts the absolutely offensive use of resources used by the United States on our military.
Now here’s the thought experiment. Let’s just say the United States wanted to attack someone. Would it be China or Russia?
Of course not. Well, why not? We spend so much more than they do. We have half of the aircraft carriers in the world to cap the most expansive navy in history. Our technological superiority is unmatched. Why not attack Russia or China?
Because China and Russia are fully capable of defending themselves even against the huge expenditures of the United States.
The next highest spender is China. They have almost twice the number of active troops than the United States (not including reserves. If reserves are included Russia’s army dwarfs every other nation including the United States). Despite having less than half the navy as the US it still has a comparable air force (by the numbers: I’m not familiar with their tactical or technological advancement). China is safe from everyone, including the United States, yet they spend only about 22% as much on their military.
Is it not reasonable to assume that the United States would have an adequate “defense” even if we slash our military budget by 80% or even 90%. England spends about 10% as much on defense as the United States, and yet is no more vulnerable to attack.
Perhaps the reality is that American politicians are not interested in “defense.” Such military expenditures are offensive by design. The function of the American military establishment is the capacity to bully others, not to defend the nation from threats against our sovereignty.