"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘Democracy’

Irreconcilable Differences: Capitalism And A Sustainable Planet

In Uncategorized on October 19, 2013 at 6:42 pm

http://cdn7.triplepundit.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/CapitalismVsEarth-208x300.pngOldspeak:No amount of fiddling with capitalism to regulate and humanize it … can for long disguise its failure to conserve the wealth and health of nature. Eroded, wasted, or degraded soils; damaged or destroyed ecosystems; extinction of biodiversity, species; whole landscapes defaced, gouged, flooded, or blown up … thoughtless squandering of fossil fuels and fossil waters, of mineable minerals and ores, natural health and beauty replaced by a heartless and sickening ugliness. Perhaps its greatest success is an astounding increase in the destructiveness and therefore the profitability of war.” -Wendell Berry

“Market-based Capitalism is unsustainable. it is no longer possible for unfettered unregulated all-consuming capitalism to continue. The fate of our home is more surely sealed every day it does. There is no capital on a dead planet. Environmental conservation trumps market conservation. We need environment based systems.  Systems built on conservation, localization, synchronicity, regeneration, sustainability, abundance, transparency, equality, democracy, & anarcho-syndicalism.” -OSJ

By Gary Olson @ Dissident Voice:

People who own the world outright for profit will have to be stopped; by influence, by power, by us.

— Wendell Berry1

The need for more studies confirming that we’re approaching an irreversible ecological crisis, the tipping point beyond human control, is over. James Hansen, the world’s most eminent climatologist is so certain of this evidence that he’s added civil disobedience to his resistance repertoire. Along with legal challenges, expert testimony and lobbying governments, the 72-year-old grandfather advocates direct action by a mobilized citizenry. He’s been arrested several times, most recently in protests again the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline.

This project would transport raw, toxic tar sands (bitumen) from Alberta, Canada to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. In addition to destroying northern forests and endangering our drinking water, Keystone XL will emit a staggering amount of global warming pollution into the environment. Just a few weeks ago, Hansen and some former NASA colleagues wrote that “Burning all fossil fuels, we conclude, would make most of the planet uninhabitable by humans … and would leave just a fraction of humanity clinging to life atop Earth’s highest ridges.”

That the corporate carbon industrial complex remains obdurate in the face of all evidence isn’t surprising but it does reveal the inadequacy of piece meal reform. Simply stated, market based responses won’t save us because there is an irreconcilable conflict between capitalist economic growth ad infinitum and the survival of the planet as we know it. Even the looming prospect of ecocide won’t keep fossil fuels in the ground, resources worth trillions to oil and gas corporations.

As labor rights activist Shamus Cooke puts it, those capitalists who fail to obtain a return on their investments (growth) lose money. This relentless imperative, “this holy shrine of growth cannot be surgically removed from the capitalist body; the body itself was born ill.” And because renewable energy isn’t as profitable as oil,” a majority of capitalist investment will continue to go towards destroying the planet.” Recently, when asked about opposition to the XL Pipeline, ExxonMobil’s CEO Rex Tillerson candidly replied, “My philosophy is to make money.”

As if to reinforce this point, profiting from global warming is the next big thing. I’m reminded of Bob Mankoff’s 2002 cartoon in The New Yorker where a corporate executive declares to an audience of peers, “And so, while the-end-of-the-world scenario will be rife with unimaginable horrors, we believe the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profits.” Mankoff’s clever prescience is perversely confirmed by a recent Bloomberg headline: “Investors Embrace Climate Change, Chase Hotter Profits.” Because Wall Street now assumes that climate change is “inevitable,” the only remaining question is how to profit from it?

This goes far beyond selling more potent sun screens, inflatable rafts and anti-pollution breathing masks. Billions of dollars are being invested in Australian farmland (far from the ocean) and hedge funds trading in something called “weather derivatives.” Investments are flowing into the mining of copper and gold in Greenland where glacier-free land has suddenly become accessible. Arctic tourism, gas exploration and new shipping lanes through melting polar regions are all climate change, money-making ventures. In anticipation of major droughts, Bayer, Monsanto and BASF have filed some 55 patents for “climate ready” seeds. Green technology is already passé as investors scramble for their final piece of a planet in dire jeopardy.

Working for reforms is not unimportant but capitalism cannot prevent the ruination of the biosphere. My sense is that climate activists who fail to acknowledge this basic truth — we might term them “capitalism deniers” — have no chance of reversing our slide toward the ecological apocalypse.

For myself, as a grandfather of two little guys and nearing my retirement from full-time teaching, the prospect of of engaging in civil disobedience, being a serial arrestee on behalf of the environment is appealing for the next stage of my life. I like to imagine Jackson and Zinn’s parents having a true story to tell the boys when they plead: “Tell us again about how Grandpa tried to stop the bad guys who didn’t care about all the animals, plants and people on earth.”

  1. Writer and Farmer Wendell Berry on Hope, Direct Action, and the ‘Resettling’ of the American Countryside,” Yes! []

Gary Olson is professor and chair of the political science department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. He is the author of Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture, and the Brain (New York: Springer-Verlag, 2013). He can be reached at: olson@moravian.edu. Read other articles by Gary.

“Apocalyptic Journalism” & Why We Need Journalists To Face the Reality Of Our Crumbling Society

In Uncategorized on May 21, 2013 at 6:31 pm

Oldspeak: “To speak apocalyptically…. is first and foremost about deepening our understanding of the world, seeing through the obfuscations of people in power. In our propaganda-saturated world (think about the amount of advertising, public relations, and marketing that we are bombarded with daily), coming to that kind of clarity about the nature of the empires of our day is always a struggle, and that notion of revelation is more crucial than ever. Thinking apocalyptically, coming to this clarity, will force us to confront crises that concentrated wealth and power create, and reflect on our role in these systems. Given the severity of the human assault on the ecosphere, compounded by the suffering and strife within the human family, honest apocalyptic thinking that is firmly grounded in a systematic evaluation of the state of the world is not only sensible but a moral obligation… Things are bad, systems are failing, and the status quo won’t last forever… The great party of the twentieth century is coming to an end, and unless we now start preparing our survival kit we will soon be just another species eking out an existence in the few remaining habitable regions. … We should be the heart and mind of the Earth, not its malady. So let us be brave and cease thinking of human needs and rights alone and see that we have harmed the living Earth and need to make our peace with Gaia….Thinking apocalyptically in this fashion demands of us considerable courage and commitment. This process will not produce definitive answers but rather help us identify new directions. Anything that blocks us from looking honestly at reality, no matter how harsh the reality, must be rejected. It’s a lot to ask, of people and of journalists, to not only think about this, but put it at the center of our lives. What choice do we have?” -Robert Jensen

“I’ve watched several hours of corporate news coverage of the mega tornado that struck in Oklahoma, U.S. Needless to say there’s has been little in the way of Apocalyptic Journalism. It’s been primarily disaster porn. Marveling at the “unfathomable destruction” (Despite decades of predictions that natural disasters would get more intense, more powerful, more frequent and unpredictable). Near constant loops of the tornado ripping through the country side, repeated live shots and “reports” from “ground zero”.  Constant death toll updates. Interviews with tearful, shell-shocked victims, recounting their experiences.  Stories of found pets. Snazzy colorful graphics tracking the storm’s path. Cut to commercials with sad music and still photos of the carnage and survivors/rescuers. About 5 minutes was devoted to talking to climate scientists, and contextualizing the disaster in relation to climate change and global warming, taking time to note that there’s no way to prove that this disaster was result of climate change. No critical examination of the systems and institutions we organize our civilization around that have created the conditions. Just endless disaster as “content”. By next week the content will be new. But the environmental disasters will continue unabated, bigger, faster and stronger. Apocalypse is not a bad word. It means to uncover, to reveal.  These are the things we need most from our journalists now.”

By Robert Jensen @ Alter Net:

For those who care about a robust human presence on the planet, the 21st century has been characterized by really bad news that keeps getting really, really worse.

Whatever one’s evaluation of high-energy/high-technology civilization (and I have been among its critics; more on that later), it’s now clear that we are hitting physical limits; we cannot expect to maintain contemporary levels of consumption that draw down the ecological capital of the planet at rates dramatically beyond replacement levels. It unrealistic to imagine that we can go on treating the planet as nothing more than a mine from which we extract and a landfill into which we dump.

We have no choice but to deal with the collapse of journalism, but we also should recognize the need for a journalism of collapse. Everyone understands that economic changes are forcing a refashioning of the journalism profession. It’s long past time for everyone to pay attention to how multiple, cascading ecological crises should be changing professional journalism’s mission in even more dramatic fashion.

It’s time for an apocalyptic journalism (that takes some explaining; a lot more on that later).

The Basics of Journalism: Ideals and Limitations

With the rapid expansion of journalistic-like material on the Internet, it’s especially crucial to define “real” journalism. In a democratic system, ideally journalism is a critical, independent source of information, analysis, and the varied opinions needed by citizens who want to play a meaningful role in the formation of public policy. The key terms are “critical” and “independent”—to fulfill the promise of a free press, journalists must be willing to critique not only specific people and policies, but the systems out of which they emerge, and they must be as free as possible from constraining influences, both overt and subtle. Also included in that definition of journalism is an understanding of democracy—“a meaningful role in the formation of public policy”—as more than just lining up to vote in elections that offer competing sets of elites who represent roughly similar programs. Meaningful democracy involves meaningful participation.

This discussion will focus on what is typically called mainstream journalism, the corporate-commercial news media. These are the journalists who work for daily newspapers, broadcast and cable television, and the corporately owned platforms on the Internet and other digital devices. Although there are many types of independent and alternative journalism of varying quality, the vast majority of Americans continue to receive the vast majority of their news from these mainstream sources, which are almost always organized as large corporations and funded primarily by advertising.

Right-wing politicians and commentators sometimes refer to the mainstream media as the “lamestream,” implying that journalists are comically incompetent and incapable of providing an accurate account of the world, likely due to a lack of understanding of conservative people and their ideas. While many elite journalists may be dismissive of the cultural values of conservatives, this critique ignores the key questions about journalism’s relationship to power. Focusing on the cultural politics of individual reporters and editors—pointing out that they tend to be less religious and more supportive of gay and women’s rights than the general public, for example—diverts attention from more crucial questions about how the institutional politics of corporate owners and managers shapes the news and keeps mainstream journalism within a centrist/right conventional wisdom.

The managers of commercial news organizations in the United States typically reject that claim by citing the unbreachable “firewall” between the journalistic and the business sides of the operation, which is supposed to allow journalists to pursue any story without interference from the corporate front office. This exchange I had with a newspaper editor captures the ideology: After listening to my summary of this critique of the U.S. commercial news media system, this editor (let’s call him Joe) told me proudly: “No one from corporate headquarters has ever called me to tell me what to run in my paper.” I asked Joe if it were possible that he simply had internalized the value system of the folks who run the corporation (and by extension, the folks who run most of the world), and therefore they never needed to give him direct instructions. He rejected that, reasserting his independence from any force outside his newsroom.

I countered: “Let’s say, for the purposes of discussion, that you and I were equally capable journalists in terms of professional skills, that we were both reasonable candidates for the job of editor-in-chief that you hold. If we had both applied for the job, do you think your corporate bosses would have ever considered me for the position, given my politics? Would I, for even a second, have been seen by them to be a viable candidate for the job?”

Joe’s politics are pretty conventional, well within the range of mainstream Republicans and Democrats—he supports big business and U.S. supremacy in global politics and economics. I’m a critic of capitalism and U.S. foreign policy. On some political issues, Joe and I would agree, but we diverge sharply on these core questions of the nature of the economy and the state.

Joe pondered my question and conceded that I was right, that his bosses would never hire someone with my politics, no matter how qualified, to run one of their newspapers. The conversation trailed off, and we parted without resolving our differences. I would like to think my critique at least got Joe to question his platitudes, but I never saw any evidence of that. In his subsequent writing and public comments that I read and heard, Joe continued to assert that a news media system dominated by for-profit corporations was the best way to produce the critical, independent journalism that citizens in a democracy needed. Because he was in a position of some privilege and status, nothing compelled Joe to respond to my challenge.

Partly as a result of many such unproductive conversations, I continue to search for new ways to present a critique of mainstream journalism that might break through that ideological wall. In addition to thinking about alternatives to this traditional business model, we should confront the limitations of the corresponding professional model, with its status-quo-supportive ideology of neutrality, balance, and objectivity. Can we create conditions under which journalism—deeply critical and truly independent—can flourish in these trying times?

In this essay I want to try out theological concepts of the royal, prophetic, and apocalyptic traditions. Though journalism is a secular institution, religion can provide a helpful vocabulary. The use of these terms is not meant to imply support for any particular religious tradition, or for religion more generally, but only recognizes that the fundamental struggles of human history play out in religious and secular settings, and we can learn from all of that history. With a focus on the United States, I’ll drawn on the concepts as they understood in the dominant U.S. tradition of Judaism and Christianity.

Royal Journalism

Most of today’s mainstream corporate-commercial journalism—the work done by people such as Joe—is royal journalism, using the term “royal” not to describe a specific form of executive power but as a description of a system that centralizes authority and marginalizes the needs of ordinary people. The royal tradition describes ancient Israel, the Roman empire, European monarchs, or contemporary America—societies in which those with concentrated wealth and power can ignore the needs of the bulk of the population, societies where the wealthy and powerful offer platitudes about their beneficence as they pursue policies to enrich themselves.

In his books The Prophetic Imagination and The Practice of Prophetic Imagination, theologian Walter Brueggemann points out that this royal consciousness took hold after ancient Israel sank into disarray, when Solomon overturned Moses—affluence, oppressive social policy, and static religion replaced a God of liberation with one used to serve an empire. This consciousness develops not only in top leaders but throughout the privileged sectors, often filtering down to a wider public that accepts royal power. Brueggemann labels this a false consciousness: “The royal consciousness leads people to numbness, especially to numbness about death.”

The inclusion of the United States in a list of royalist societies may seem odd, given the democratic traditions of the country, but consider a nation that has been at war for more than a decade, in which economic inequality and the resulting suffering has dramatically deepened for the past four decades, in which climate change denial has increased as the evidence of the threat becomes undeniable. Brueggemann describes such a culture as one that is “competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing.”

Almost all mainstream corporate-commercial journalism is, in this sense, royal journalism. It is journalism without the imagination needed to move outside the framework created by the dominant systems of power. CNN, MSNBC and FOX News all practice royal journalism. TheNew York Times is ground-zero for royal journalism. Marking these institutions as royalist doesn’t mean that no good journalism ever emerges from them, or that they employ no journalists who are capable of challenging royal arrangements. Instead, the term recognizes that these institutions lack the imagination necessary to step outside of the royal consciousness on a regular basis. Over time, they add to the numbness rather than jolt people out of it.

The royal consciousness of our day is defined by unchallengeable commitments to a high-energy/high-technology worldview, within a hierarchical economy, run by an imperial nation-state. These technological, economic, and national fundamentalisms produce a certain kind of story about ourselves, which encourages the belief that we can have anything we want without obligations to other peoples or other living things, and that we deserve this. Brueggemann argues that this bolsters notions of “US exceptionalism that gives warrant to the usurpatious pursuit of commodities in the name of freedom, at the expense of the neighbor.”

If one believes royal arrangements are just and sustainable, then royal journalism could be defended. If the royal tradition is illegitimate, than a different journalism is necessary.

Prophetic Journalism

Given the multiple crises that existing political, economic, and social systems have generated, the ideals of journalism call for a prophetic journalism. The first step in defending that claim is to remember what real prophets are not: They are not people who predict the future or demand that others follow them in lockstep. In the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament, prophets are the figures who remind the people of the best of the tradition and point out how the people have strayed. In those traditions, using our prophetic imagination and speaking in a prophetic voice requires no special status in society, and no sense of being special. Claiming the prophetic tradition requires only honesty and courage.

When we strip away supernatural claims and delusions of grandeur, we can understand the prophetic as the calling out of injustice, the willingness not only to confront the abuses of the powerful but to acknowledge our own complicity. To speak prophetically requires us first to see honestly—both how our world is structured by systems that create unjust and unsustainable conditions, and how we who live in the privileged parts of the world are implicated in those systems. To speak prophetically is to refuse to shrink from what we discover or from our own place in these systems. We must confront the powers that be, and ourselves.

The Hebrew Bible offers us many models. Amos and Hosea, Jeremiah and Isaiah—all rejected the pursuit of wealth or power and argued for the centrality of kindness and justice. The prophets condemned corrupt leaders but also called out all those privileged people in society who had turned from the demands of justice, which the faith makes central to human life. In his analysis of these prophets, the scholar and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel concluded:

Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption.

Critical of royal consciousness, Brueggemann argues that the task of those speaking prophetically is to “penetrate the numbness in order to face the body of death in which we are caught” and “penetrate despair so that new futures can be believed in and embraced by us.” He encourages preachers to think of themselves as “handler[s] of the prophetic tradition,” a job description that also applies to other intellectual professions, including journalism.

Brueggemann argues that this isn’t about intellectuals imposing their views and values on others, but about being willing to “connect the dots”:

Prophetic preaching does not put people in crisis. Rather it names and makes palpable the crisis already pulsing among us. When the dots are connected, it will require naming the defining sins among us of environmental abuse, neighborly disregard, long-term racism, self-indulgent consumerism, all the staples from those ancient truthtellers translated into our time and place.

None of this requires journalists to advocate for specific politicians, parties, or political programs; we don’t need journalists to become propagandists. Journalists should strive for real independence but not confuse that with an illusory neutrality that traps mainstream journalists within ideological boundaries defined by the powerful. Again, real independence means the ability to critique not just the worst abuses by the powerful within the systems, but to critique the systems themselves.

This prophetic calling is consistent with the aphorism many journalists claim as a shorthand mission statement: The purpose of journalism is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. That phrase focuses on injustice within human societies, but what of the relationship of human beings to the larger living world? How should journalists understand their mission in that arena?

Ecological Realties

Let’s put analysis of journalism on hold and think about the larger world in which journalism operates. Journalistic ideals and norms should change as historical conditions change, and today that means facing tough questions about ecological sustainability.

There is considerable evidence to help us evaluate the health of the ecosphere on which our own lives depend, and an honest evaluation of that evidence leads to a disturbing conclusion: Life as we know it is almost over. That is, the high-energy/high-technology life that we in the affluent societies live is a dead-end. There is a growing realization that we have disrupted planetary forces in ways we cannot control and do not fully understand. We cannot predict the specific times and places where dramatic breakdowns will occur, but we can know that the living system on which we depend is breaking down.

Does that seem histrionic? Excessively alarmist? Look at any crucial measure of the health of the ecosphere in which we live—groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species and reduction of bio-diversity—and the news is bad. Add to that the mother of all ecological crises—global warming, climate change, climate disruption—and it’s clear that we are creating a planet that cannot indefinitely support a large-scale human presence living this culture’s idea of the good life.

We also live in an oil-based world that is rapidly depleting the cheap and easily accessible oil, which means we face a huge reconfiguration of the infrastructure that undergirds our lives. Meanwhile, the desperation to avoid that reconfiguration has brought us to the era of “extreme energy” using even more dangerous and destructive technologies (hydrofracturing, deep-water drilling, mountain-top removal, tar sands extraction) to get at the remaining hydrocarbons.

Where we are heading? Off the rails? Into the wall? Over the cliff? Pick your favorite metaphor. Scientists these days are talking about tipping points and planetary boundaries, about how human activity is pushing the planet beyond its limits. Recently 22 top scientists in the prestigious journal Nature warned that humans likely are forcing a planetary-scale critical transition “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience.” That means that “the biological resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable transformations within a few human generations.”

That means that we’re in trouble, not in some imaginary science-fiction future, but in our present reality. We can’t pretend all that’s needed is tinkering with existing systems to fix a few environmental problems; significant changes in how we live are required. No matter where any one of us sits in the social and economic hierarchies, there is no escape from the dislocations that will come with such changes. Money and power might insulate some from the most wrenching consequences of these shifts, but there is no permanent escape. We do not live in stable societies and no longer live on a stable planet. We may feel safe and secure in specific places at specific times, but it’s hard to believe in any safety and security in a collective sense.

In short, we live in apocalyptic times.

Apocalypse

To be clear: Speaking apocalyptically need not be limited to claims that the world will end on a guru’s timetable or according to some allegedly divine plan. Lots of apocalyptic visions—religious and secular—offer such certainty, imaging the replacement of a corrupt society by one structured on principles that will redeem humanity (or at least redeem those who sign onto the principles). But this need not be our only understanding of the term.

Most discussions of revelation and apocalypse in contemporary America focus on the Book of Revelation, also known as The Apocalypse of John, the final book of the Christian New Testament. The two terms are synonymous in their original meaning; “revelation” from Latin and “apocalypse” from Greek both mean a lifting of the veil, a disclosure of something hidden from most people, a coming to clarity. Many scholars interpret the Book of Revelation not as a set of predictions about the future but as a critique of the oppression of the empire of that day, Rome.

To speak apocalyptically, in this tradition, is first and foremost about deepening our understanding of the world, seeing through the obfuscations of people in power. In our propaganda-saturated world (think about the amount of advertising, public relations, and marketing that we are bombarded with daily), coming to that kind of clarity about the nature of the empires of our day is always a struggle, and that notion of revelation is more crucial than ever.

Thinking apocalyptically, coming to this clarity, will force us to confront crises that concentrated wealth and power create, and reflect on our role in these systems. Given the severity of the human assault on the ecosphere, compounded by the suffering and strife within the human family, honest apocalyptic thinking that is firmly grounded in a systematic evaluation of the state of the world is not only sensible but a moral obligation. Rather than thinking of revelation as divine delivery of a clear message about some fantastic future above, we can engage in an ongoing process of revelation that results from an honest struggle to understand, a process that requires a lot of effort.

Things are bad, systems are failing, and the status quo won’t last forever. Thinking apocalyptically in this fashion demands of us considerable courage and commitment. This process will not produce definitive answers but rather help us identify new directions.

Again, to be very clear: “Apocalypse” in this context does not mean lakes of fire, rivers of blood, or bodies lifted up to heaven. The shift from the prophetic to the apocalyptic can instead mark the point when hope in the viability of existing systems is no longer possible and we must think in dramatically new ways. Invoking the apocalyptic recognizes the end of something. It’s not about rapture but a rupture severe enough to change the nature of the whole game.

Apocalyptic Journalism

The prophetic imagination helps us analyze the historical moment we’re in, but it’s based on an implicit faith that the systems in which we live can be reshaped to stop the worst consequences of the royal consciousness, to shake off that numbness of death in time. What if that is no longer possible? Then it is time to think about what’s on the other side. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” said Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the more well-known voices in the prophetic tradition. But if the arc is now bending toward a quite different future, a different approach is needed.

Because no one can predict the future, these two approaches are not mutually exclusive; people should not be afraid to think prophetically and apocalyptically at the same time. We can simultaneously explore immediate changes in the existing systems and think about new systems.

Invoking the prophetic in the face of royal consciousness does not promise quick change and a carefree future, but it implies that a disastrous course can be corrected. But what if the justification for such hope evaporates? When prophetic warnings have not been heeded, what comes next? This is the time when an apocalyptic sensibility is needed.

Fred Guterl, the executive editor of Scientific American, models that spirit in his book The Fate of the Species.Though he describes himself on the “techno-optimistic side of the spectrum,” he does not shy away from a blunt discussion of the challenges humans face:

There’s no going back on our reliance on computers and high-tech medicine, agriculture, power generation, and so forth without causing vast human suffering—unless you want to contemplate reducing the world population by many billions of people. We have climbed out on a technological limb, and turning back is a disturbing option. We are dependent on our technology, yet our technology now presents the seeds of our own destruction. It’s a dilemma. I don’t pretend to have a way out. We should start by being aware of the problem.

I don’t share Guterl’s techno-optimism, but it strikes me as different from a technological fundamentalism (the quasi-religious belief that the use of advanced technology is always a good thing and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology can be remedied by more technology) that assumes that humans can invent themselves out of any problem. Guterl doesn’t deny the magnitude of the problems and recognizes the real possibility, perhaps even the inevitability, of massive social dislocation:

[W]e’re going to need the spirit with which these ideas were hatched to solve the problems we have created. Tossing aside technological optimism is not a realistic option. This doesn’t mean technology is going to save us. We may still be doomed. But without it, we are surely doomed.

Closer to my own assessment is James Lovelock, a Fellow of the Royal Society, whose work led to the detection of the widespread presence CFCs in the atmosphere. Most famous for his “Gaia hypothesis” that understands both the living and non-living parts of the earth as a complex system that can be thought of as a single organism, he suggests that we face these stark realities immediately:

The great party of the twentieth century is coming to an end, and unless we now start preparing our survival kit we will soon be just another species eking out an existence in the few remaining habitable regions. … We should be the heart and mind of the Earth, not its malady. So let us be brave and cease thinking of human needs and rights alone and see that we have harmed the living Earth and need to make our peace with Gaia.

Anything that blocks us from looking honestly at reality, no matter how harsh the reality, must be rejected. It’s a lot to ask, of people and of journalists, to not only think about this, but put it at the center of our lives. What choice do we have? To borrow from one of 20th-century America’s most honest writers, James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

That line is from an essay titled “As Much Truth as One Can Bear,” about the struggles of artists to help a society, such as the white-supremacist America, face the depth of its pathology. Baldwin suggested that a great writer attempts “to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then a little more.” If we think of Baldwin as sounding a prophetic call, an apocalyptic invocation would be “to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then all the rest of the truth, whether we can bear it or not.”

That task is difficult enough when people are relatively free to pursue inquiry without external constraints. Are the dominant corporate-commercial/advertising-supported media outlets likely to encourage journalists to pursue the projects that might lead to such questions? If not, the apocalyptic journalism we need is more likely to emerge from the margins, where people are not trapped by illusions of neutrality or concerned about professional status.

[INSERT HOPEFUL ENDING HERE]

That subhead is not an editing oversight. I wish there were an easy solution, an upbeat conclusion. I don’t have one. I’ve never heard anyone else articulate one. To face the world honestly at this moment in human history likely means giving up on easy and upbeat.

The apocalyptic tradition reminds us that the absence of hope does not have to leave us completely hopeless, that life is always at the same time about death, and then rejuvenation. If we don’t have easy, upbeat solutions and conclusions, we have the ability to keep telling stories of struggle. Our stories do not change the physical world, but they have the potential to change us. In that sense, the poet Muriel Rukeyser was right when she said, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”

To think apocalyptically is not to give up on ourselves, but only to give up on the arrogant stories that we modern humans have been telling about ourselves. The royal must give way to the prophetic and the apocalyptic. The central story that power likes to tell—that the domination/subordination dynamic that structures so much of modern life is natural and inevitable—must give way to stories of dignity, solidarity, equality. We must resist not only the cruelty of repression but the seduction of comfort.

The best journalists in our tradition have seen themselves as responsible for telling stories about the struggle for social justice. Today, we can add stories about the struggle for ecological sustainability to that mission. Our hope for a decent future—indeed, any hope for even the idea of a future—depends on our ability to tell stories not of how humans have ruled the world but how we can live in the world.

Whether or not we like it, we are all apocalyptic now.

As U.S. Economy Tanks, “New Normal” Police State Takes Shape

In Uncategorized on August 15, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Oldspeak:Forget your rights. Under our current political set-up, “states of exception” and national security “emergencies” have become permanent features of social life. Entire classes of citizens and non-citizens alike are now suspect; anarchists, communists, immigrants, Muslims, union activists and political dissidents in general are all subject to unprecedented levels of scrutiny and surveillance. From “enhanced security screenings” at airports to the massive expansion of private and state databases that archive our spending habits, whom we talk to and where we go, increasingly, as the capitalist system implodes and millions face the prospect of economic ruin, the former American republic takes on the characteristics of a corporate police state. While the global economy circles the drain, with ever more painful cuts in so-called “entitlement” programs meant to cushion the crash now on the chopping block, the corporate and political masters who rule the roost are sharpening their knives, fashioning administrative and bureaucratic surveillance tools, the better to conceal the “invisible hand” of that bitch-slaps us all” -Tom Burghardt

By Tom Burghardt @ Dissident Voice:

Forget your rights.

As corporate overlords position themselves to seize what little remains of a tattered social net (adieu Medicare and Medicaid! Social Security? Au revoir!), the Obama administration is moving at break-neck speed to expand police state programs first stood-up by the Bush government.

After all, with world share prices gyrating wildly, employment and wages in a death spiral, and retirement funds and publicly-owned assets swallowed whole by speculators and rentier scum, the state better dust-off contingency plans lest the Greek, Spanish or British “contagion” spread beyond the fabled shores of “old Europe” and infect God-fearin’ folk here in the heimat.

Fear not, they have and the lyrically-titled Civil Disturbances: Emergency Employment of Army and Other Resources, otherwise known as Army Regulation 500-50, spells out the “responsibilities, policy, and guidance for the Department of the Army in planning and operations involving the use of Army resources in the control of actual or anticipated civil disturbances.” (emphasis added)

With British politicians demanding a clampdown on social media in the wake of London riots, and with the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) agency having done so last week in San Francisco, switching off underground cell phone service to help squelch a protest against police violence, authoritarian control tactics, aping those deployed in Egypt and Tunisia (that worked out well!) are becoming the norm in so-called “Western democracies.”

Secret Law, Secret Programs

Meanwhile up on Capitol Hill, Congress did their part to defend us from that pesky Bill of Rights; that is, before 81 of them–nearly a fifth of “our” elected representatives–checked-out for AIPAC-funded junkets to Israel.

Secrecy News reported that the Senate Intelligence Committee “rejected an amendment that would have required the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence to confront the problem of ‘secret law,’ by which government agencies rely on legal authorities that are unknown or misunderstood by the public.”

That amendment, proposed by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO) was rejected by voice vote, further entrenching unprecedented surveillance powers of Executive Branch agencies such as the FBI and NSA.

As Antifascist Calling previously reported, the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Justice Department “demanding the release of a secret legal memo used to justify FBI access to Americans’ telephone records without any legal process or oversight.”

The DOJ refused and it now appears that the Senate has affirmed that “secret law” should be guiding principles of our former republic.

Secrecy News also disclosed that the Committee rejected a second amendment to the authorization bill, one that would have required the Justice Department’s Inspector General “to estimate the number of Americans who have had the contents of their communications reviewed in violation of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 [FAA].”

As pointed out here many times, FAA is a pernicious piece of Bushist legislative detritus that legalized the previous administration’s secret spy programs since embellished by our current “hope and change” president.

During the run-up to FAA’s passage, congressional Democrats, including then-Senator Barack Obama and his Republican colleagues across the aisle, claimed that the law would “strike a balance” between Americans’ privacy rights and the needs of security agencies to “stop terrorists” attacking the country.

If that’s the case, then why can’t the American people learn whether their rights have been compromised?

Perhaps, as recent reports in Truthout and other publications suggest, former U.S. counterterrorism “czar” Richard Clarke leveled “explosive allegations against three former top CIA officials — George Tenet, Cofer Black and Richard Blee — accusing them of knowingly withholding intelligence … about two of the 9/11 hijackers who had entered the United States more than a year before the attacks.”

Clarke’s allegations follow closely on the heels of an investigation by Truthoutjournalists Jeffrey Kaye and Jason Leopold.

“Based on on documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and an interview with a former high-ranking counterterrorism official,” Kaye and Leopold learned that “a little-known military intelligence unit, unbeknownst to the various investigative bodies probing the terrorist attacks, was ordered by senior government officials to stop tracking Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s movements prior to 9/11.”

As readers are well aware, the 9/11 provocation was the pretext used by the capitalist state to wage aggressive resource wars abroad while ramming through repressive legislation like the USA Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act that targeted the democratic rights of the American people here at home.

But FAA did more then legitimate illegal programs. It also handed retroactive immunity and economic cover to giant telecoms like AT&T and Verizon who profited handily from government surveillance, shielding them from monetary damages which may have resulted from a spate of lawsuits such as Hepting v. AT&T.

This raises the question: are other U.S. firms similarly shielded from scrutiny by secret annexes in FAA or the privacy-killing USA Patriot Act?

Echelon Cubed

Last week, Softpedia revealed that “Google has admitted complying with requests from US intelligence agencies for data stored in its European data centers, most likely in violation of European Union data protection laws.”

“At the center of this problem,” reporter Lucian Constantin wrote, “is the USA PATRIOT ACT, which states that companies incorporated in the United States must hand over data administered by their foreign subsidiaries if requested.”

“Not only that,” the publication averred, “they can be forced to keep quiet about it in order to avoid exposing active investigations and alert those targeted by the probes.”

In other words, despite strict privacy laws that require companies operating within the EU to protect the personal data of their citizens, reports suggest that U.S. firms, operating under an entirely different legal framework, U.S. spy laws with built-in secrecy clauses and gag orders, trump the laws and legal norms of other nations.

Given the widespread corporate espionage carried out by the National Security Agency’s decades-long Echelon communications’ intercept program, American firms such as Google, Microsoft, Apple or Amazon may very well have become witting accomplices of U.S. secret state agencies rummaging about for “actionable intelligence” on EU, or U.S., citizens.

Indeed, a decade ago the European Union issued its final report on the Echelon spying machine and concluded that the program was being used for corporate and industrial espionage and that data filched from EU firms was being turned over to American corporations.

In 2000, the BBC reported that according to European investigators “U.S. Department of Commerce ‘success stories’ could be attributed to the filtering powers of Echelon.”

Duncan Campbell, a British journalist and intelligence expert, who along with New Zealand journalist Nicky Hager, helped blow the lid off Echelon, offered two instances of U.S. corporate spying in the 1990s when the newly-elected Clinton administration followed up on promises of “aggressive advocacy” on behalf of U.S. firms “bidding for foreign contracts.”

According to Campbell, NSA “lifted all the faxes and phone-calls between Airbus, the Saudi national airline and the Saudi Government” to gain this information. In a second case which came to light, Campbell documented how “Raytheon used information picked up from NSA snooping to secure a $1.4bn contract to supply a radar system to Brazil instead of France’s Thomson-CSF.”

As Softpedia reported, U.S.-based cloud computing services operating overseas have placed “European companies and government agencies that are using their services … in a tough position.”

With the advent of fiber optic communication platforms, programs like Echelon have a far greater, and more insidious, reach. AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein noted on the widespread deployment by NSA of fiber optic splitters and secret rooms at American telecommunications’ firms:

What screams out at you when examining this physical arrangement is that the NSA was vacuuming up everything flowing in the Internet stream: e-mail, web browsing, Voice-Over-Internet phone calls, pictures, streaming video, you name it. The splitter has no intelligence at all, it just makes a blind copy. There could not possibly be a legal warrant for this, since according to the 4th Amendment warrants have to be specific, “particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. …

This was a massive blind copying of the communications of millions of people, foreign and domestic, randomly mixed together. From a legal standpoint, it does not matter what they claim to throw away later in their secret rooms, the violation has already occurred at the splitter. (Mark Klein,Wiring Up the Big Brother Machine… And Fighting It, Charleston, South Carolina: BookSurge, 2009, pp. 38-39.)

What was Google’s response?

In a statement to the German publication WirtschaftsWoche a Google corporate spokesperson said:

As a law abiding company, we comply with valid legal process, and that–as for any U.S. based company–means the data stored outside of the U.S. may be subject to lawful access by the U.S. government. That said, we are committed to protecting user privacy when faced with law enforcement requests. We have a long track record of advocating on behalf of user privacy in the face of such requests and we scrutinize requests carefully to ensure that they adhere to both the letter and the spirit of the law before complying.” (translation courtesy of Public Intelligence)

Is the Senate Intelligence Committee’s steadfast refusal to release documents and secret legal memos that most certainly target American citizens also another blatant example of American exceptionalism meant to protect U.S. firms operating abroad from exposure as corporate spies for the government?

It isn’t as if NSA hasn’t been busy doing just that here at home.

As The New York Times reported back in 2009, the “National Security Agency intercepted private e-mail messages and phone calls of Americans in recent months on a scale that went beyond the broad legal limits established by Congress last year.”

Chalking up the problem to “overcollection” and “technical difficulties,” unnamed intelligence officials and administration lawyers told journalists Eric Lichtblau and James Risen that although the practice was “significant and systemic … it was believed to have been unintentional.”

As “unintentional” as ginned-up intelligence that made the case for waging aggressive war against oil-rich Iraq!

In a follow-up piece, the Times revealed that NSA “appears to have tolerated significant collection and examination of domestic e-mail messages without warrants.”

A former NSA analyst “read into” the illegal program told Lichtblau and Risen that he “and other analysts were trained to use a secret database, code-named Pinwale, in 2005 that archived foreign and domestic e-mail messages.”

Email readily handed over by Google, Microsoft or other firms “subject to lawful access” by the Pentagon spy satrapy?

The Times’ anonymous source said “Pinwale allowed N.S.A. analysts to read large volumes of e-mail messages to and from Americans as long as they fell within certain limits–no more than 30 percent of any database search, he recalled being told–and Americans were not explicitly singled out in the searches.”

Nor, were they excluded from such illicit practices.

As Jane Mayer revealed in The New Yorker, “privacy controls” and “anonymizing features” of a program called ThinThread, which would have complied with the law if Americans’ communications were swept into NSA’s giant eavesdropping nets, were rejected in favor of the “$1.2 billion flop” called Trailblazer.

And, as previously reported, when Wyden and Udall sought information from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on just how many Americans had their communications monitored, the DNI stonewalled claiming “it is not reasonably possible to identify the number of people located in the United States whose communications may have been reviewed under the authority.”

Why? Precisely because such programs act like a giant electronic sponge and soak up and data mine huge volumes of our communications.

As former NSA manager and ThinThread creator Bill Binney told The New Yorker, that “little program … got twisted” and was “used to eavesdrop on the whole world.”

Three years after Barack Obama promised to curb Bush administration “excesses,” illegal surveillance programs continue to expand under his watch.

A Permanent “State of Exception”

Under our current political set-up, “states of exception” and national security “emergencies” have become permanent features of social life.

Entire classes of citizens and non-citizens alike are now suspect; anarchists, communists, immigrants, Muslims, union activists and political dissidents in general are all subject to unprecedented levels of scrutiny and surveillance.

From “enhanced security screenings” at airports to the massive expansion of private and state databases that archive our spending habits, whom we talk to and where we go, increasingly, as the capitalist system implodes and millions face the prospect of economic ruin, the former American republic takes on the characteristics of a corporate police state.

Security researcher and analyst Christopher Soghoian reported on his Slight Paranoia blog, that according to “an official DOJ report, the use of ‘emergency’, warrantless requests to ISPs for customer communications content has skyrocketed over 400% in a single year.”

This is no trifling matter.

As CNET News disclosed last month, “Internet providers would be forced to keep logs of their customers’ activities for one year–in case police want to review them in the future–under legislation that a U.S. House of Representatives committee approved today.”

Declan McCullagh reported that “the 19 to 10 vote represents a victory for conservative Republicans, who made data retention their first major technology initiative after last fall’s elections.”

Significantly, CNET noted that this is also a “victory” for Democratic appointees of Barack Obama’s Justice Department “who have quietly lobbied for the sweeping new requirements.”

According to CNET, a “last-minute rewrite of the bill expands the information that commercial Internet providers are required to store to include customers’ names, addresses, phone numbers, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, and temporarily-assigned IP addresses.”

However, by “a 7-16 vote, the panel rejected an amendment that would have clarified that only IP addresses must be stored.”

Consider the troubling implications of this sweeping bill. While ultra-rightist “Tea Party” Republicans vowed to get “the government off our backs,” when it comes to illicit snooping by securocrats whose only loyalty is to a self-perpetuating security bureaucracy and the defense grifters they serve (and whom they rely upon for plum positions after government “retirement”), all our private data is now up for grabs.

The bill, according to Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), who spearheaded opposition to the measure said that if passed, it would create “a data bank of every digital act by every American” that would “let us find out where every single American visited Web sites.”

To make the poison pill legislation difficult to oppose, proponents have dubbed it, wait, the “Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act of 2011″ even though, as CNET noted, “the mandatory logs would be accessible to police investigating any crime and perhaps attorneys litigating civil disputes in divorce, insurance fraud, and other cases as well.”

Soghoian relates that the 2009 two-page Justice Department report to Congress took 11 months (!) to release under a Freedom of Information Act request.

Why the Justice Department stonewall?

Perhaps, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation disclosed last year, political appointees at the Department of Homeland Security and presumably other secret state satrapies, ordered “an extra layer of review on its FOIA requests.”

EFF revealed that a 2009 policy memo from the Department’s Chief FOIA Officer and Chief Privacy Officer, Mary Ellen Callahan, that DHS components “were required to report ‘significant FOIA activities’ in weekly reports to the Privacy Office, which the Privacy Office then integrated into its weekly report to the White House Liaison.”

Included amongst designated “significant FOIA activities” were requests “from any members of ‘an activist group, watchdog organization, special interest group, etc.’ and ‘requested documents [that] will garner media attention or [are] receiving media attention’.”

Despite the appearance of reporting “emergency” spying requests to congressional committees presumably overseeing secret state activities (a generous assumption at best), “it is quite clear” Soghoian avers, “that the Department of Justice statistics are not adequately reporting the scale of this form of surveillance” and “underreport these disclosures by several orders of magnitude.”

As such, “the current law is largely useless.” It does not apply to “state and local law enforcement agencies, who make tens of thousands of warrantless requests to ISPs each year,” and is inapplicable to “to federal law enforcement agencies outside DOJ.”

“Finally,” Soghoian relates, “it does not apply to emergency disclosures of non-content information, such as geo-location data, subscriber information (such as name and address), or IP addresses used.”

And with Congress poised to pass sweeping data retention legislation, it should be clear that such “requirements” are mere fig leaves covering-up state-sanctioned lawlessness.

War On Terror 2.0.1: Looting the Global Economy

Criminal behavior by domestic security agencies connect America’s illegal wars of aggression to capitalism’s economic warfare against the working class, who now take their place alongside “Islamic terrorists” as a threat to “national security.”

Despite efforts by the Obama administration and Republican congressional leaders to “balance the books” on the backs of the American people through massive budget cuts, as economist Michael Hudson pointed out in Global Research, the manufactured “debt ceiling” crisis is a massive fraud.

The World Socialist Web Site averred that:

As concerns over a double-dip recession in the US and the European debt crisis sent global markets plunging–including a 512-point sell-off on the Dow Jones Industrial Average Thursday–financial analysts and media pundits developed a new narrative. Concern that Washington lacked the ‘political will’ to slash long-standing entitlement programs was exacerbating ‘market uncertainty’.

Leftist critic Jerry White noted that “in fact, the new cuts will only intensify the economic crisis, while the slashing of food stamps, unemployment compensation, health care and education will eliminate programs that are more essential for survival than ever.”

Indeed, as Marxist economist Richard Wolff pointed out in The Guardian, while the “crisis of the capitalist system in the US that began in 2007,” may have “plunged millions into acute economic pain and suffering,” the “recovery” that began in 2009 “benefited only the minority that was most responsible for the crisis: banks, large corporations and the rich who own the bulk of stocks. That so-called recovery never ‘trickled down’ to the US majority: working people dependent on jobs and wages’.”

And despite mendacious claims by political officials and the media alike, the Pentagon will be sitting pretty even as Americans are forced to shoulder the financial burden of U.S. imperial adventures long into an increasingly bleak future.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta “warned Thursday of dire consequences if the Pentagon is forced to make cuts to its budget beyond the $400 billion in savings planned for the next decade,” The Washington Post reported.

The Post noted that “senior Pentagon officials have launched an offensive over the past two days to convince lawmakers that further reductions in Pentagon spending would imperil the country’s security.”

“Instead of slashing defense,” Panetta urged lawmakers to “rely on tax increases and cuts to nondiscretionary spending, such as Medicare and Social Security, to provide the necessary savings.”

But as Hudson points out, “war has been the major cause of a rising national debt.” After all, it was none other than bourgeois icon Adam Smith who argued that “parliamentary checks on government spending were designed to prevent ambitious rulers from waging war.”

Hudson writes that “if people felt the economic impact of war immediately–rather than postponing it by borrowing–they would be less likely to support military adventurism.”

But therein lies the rub. Since “military adventurism” is the only “growth sector” of an imploding capitalist economy, the public spigot which finances everything from cost-overrun-plagued stealth fighter jets to multi-billion dollar spy satellites, along with an out-of-control National Surveillance State, will be kept open indefinitely.

On this score, the hypocrisy of our rulers abound, especially when it comes to the mantra that “we” must “live within our means.”

As Wolff avers:

Where was that phrase heard when Washington decided to spend on an immense military (even after becoming the world’s only nuclear superpower) or to spend on very expensive wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya (now all going on at the same time)? No, then the talk was only about national security needed to save us from attacks.

“Attacks,” it should be duly noted, that may very well have been allowed to happen as the World Socialist Web Site recently reported.

Driving home the point that war, and not social and infrastructure investment fuel deficits, Hudson averred that “the present rise in in U.S. Treasury debt results from two forms of warfare. First is the overtly military Oil War in the Near East, from Iraq to Afghanistan (Pipelinistan) to oil-rich Libya. These adventures will end up costing between $3 and $5 trillion.”

“Second and even more expensive,” the economist observed, “is the more covert yet more costly economic war of Wall Street against the rest of the economy, demanding that losses by banks and financial institutions be passed onto the government balance sheet (‘taxpayers’). The bailouts and ‘free lunch’ for Wall Street–by no coincidence, Congress’s number one political campaign contributor–cost $13 trillion.”

“Now that finance is the new form of warfare,” Hudson wrote, “where is the power to constrain Treasury and Federal Reserve power to commit taxpayers to bail out financial interests at the top of the economic pyramid?”

And since “cutbacks in federal revenue sharing will hit cities and states hard, forcing them to sell off yet more land, roads and other assets in the public domain to cover their budget deficit as the U.S. economy sinks further into depression,” Hudson wrote that “Congress has just added fiscal deflation to debt deflation, slowing employment even further.”

While the global economy circles the drain, with ever more painful cuts in so-called “entitlement” programs meant to cushion the crash now on the chopping block, the corporate and political masters who rule the roost are sharpening their knives, fashioning administrative and bureaucratic surveillance tools, the better to conceal the “invisible hand” of that bitch-slaps us all.

And they call it “freedom.”

Tom Burghardt is a researcher and activist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His articles are published in many venues. He is the editor ofPolice State America: U.S. Military “Civil Disturbance” Planning, distributed by AK PressRead other articles by Tom, or visit Tom’s website.

Free Speech Under Siege In The “West”

In Uncategorized on June 27, 2011 at 1:51 pm

Oldspeak:“Democracies stand for free speech; dictatorships suppress it….The censorship of memory, which we once fondly imagined to be the mark of dictatorship, is now a major growth industry in the “free” West. Indeed, official censorship is only the tip of an iceberg of cultural censorship. A public person must be on constant guard against causing offense, whether intentionally or not.” - Robert Skidelsky. How can knowledge, discovery, and intellectual advancement be achieved without free, unfettered inquiry and constant and rigorous questioning of “accepted truths” based in religion, science or cultural memory?  Political correctness cannot ever usurp freedom of speech, to do so opens the door to authoritarianism, totalitarianism, rigidity of thought and society. There should be no such thing as accepted ways of thinking in a free society. The frightening thing is in the supposedly “free” U.S. much of the population self-censors and acts as thought police to those who think outside the politically correct and accepted spheres of thought. Phrases like “Conspiracy Theorist”, “Radical” “Fringe Elements” or ” ‘Your name here’ Extremists” are used to dismiss un-PC thought and speech as not worthy of serious, critical consideration, as they fly in the face of generally “accepted truths”  There are fewer and fewer public spheres one can introduce ideas which challenge people to actually think and consider facts that don’t jive with what they see in corporate media networks and learn from commodified, corporate controlled for-profit education systems. This has a chilling effect on those interested in engaging in political protest movements, dissent, and challenging and questioning the official narrative of history and objective reality. It’s what leads the Department of Justice to think it’s ok to surveil harass and violate the civil liberties of  law abiding citizens who dare dissent. It that that much different than what goes on in China, Iran, or Israel? If people are discouraged or afraid to engage politically in any way that they wish, state-sanctioned or not, democracy dies.”

By Robert Skidelsky @ Project Syndicate:

Recently, at a literary festival in Britain, I found myself on a panel discussing free speech. For liberals, free speech is a key index of freedom. Democracies stand for free speech; dictatorships suppress it.

When we in the West look outward, this remains our view. We condemn governments that silence, imprison, and even kill writers and journalists. Reporters Sans Frontièreskeeps a list: 24 journalists have been killed, and 148 imprisoned, just this year. Part of the promise we see in the “Arab Spring” is the liberation of the media from the dictator’s grasp.

Yet freedom of speech in the West is under strain. Traditionally, British law imposed two main limitations on the “right to free speech.” The first prohibited the use of words or expressions likely to disrupt public order; the second was the law against libel. There are good grounds for both – to preserve the peace, and to protect individuals’ reputations from lies. Most free societies accept such limits as reasonable.

But the law has recently become more restrictive. “Incitement to religious and racial hatred” and “incitement to hatred on the basis of sexual orientation” are now illegal in most European countries, independent of any threat to public order. The law has shifted from proscribing language likely to cause violence to prohibiting language intended to give offense.

A blatant example of this is the law against Holocaust denial. To deny or minimize the Holocaust is a crime in 15 European countries and Israel. It may be argued that the Holocaust was a crime so uniquely abhorrent as to qualify as a special case. But special cases have a habit of multiplying.

France has made it illegal to deny any “internationally recognized crimes against humanity.” Whereas in Muslim countries it is illegal to call the Armenian massacres of 1915-1917 “genocide,” in some Western countries it is illegal to say that they were not. Some East European countries specifically prohibit the denial of communist “genocides.”

The censorship of memory, which we once fondly imagined to be the mark of dictatorship, is now a major growth industry in the “free” West. Indeed, official censorship is only the tip of an iceberg of cultural censorship. A public person must be on constant guard against causing offense, whether intentionally or not.

Breaking the cultural code damages a person’s reputation, and perhaps one’s career. Britain’s Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke recently had to apologize for saying that some rapes were less serious than others, implying the need for legal discrimination. The parade of gaffes and subsequent groveling apologies has become a regular feature of public life.

In his classic essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill defended free speech on the ground that free inquiry was necessary to advance knowledge. Restrictions on certain areas of historical inquiry are based on the opposite premise: the truth is known, and it is impious to question it. This is absurd; every historian knows that there is no such thing as final historical truth.

It is not the task of history to defend public order or morals, but to establish what happened. Legally protected history ensures that historians will play safe. To be sure, living by Mill’s principle often requires protecting the rights of unsavory characters. David Irving writes mendacious history, but his prosecution and imprisonment in Austria for “Holocaust denial” would have horrified Mill.

By contrast, the pressure for “political correctness” rests on the argument that the truth is unknowable. Statements about the human condition are essentially matters of opinion.  Because a statement of opinion by some individuals is almost certain to offend others, and since such statements make no contribution to the discovery of truth, their degree of offensiveness becomes the sole criterion for judging their admissibility. Hence the taboo on certain words, phrases, and arguments that imply that certain individuals, groups, or practices are superior or inferior, normal or abnormal; hence the search for ever more neutral ways to label social phenomena, thereby draining language of its vigor and interest.

A classic example is the way that “family” has replaced “marriage” in public discourse, with the implication that all “lifestyles” are equally valuable, despite the fact that most people persist in wanting to get married. It has become taboo to describe homosexuality as a “perversion,” though this was precisely the word used in the 1960’s by the radical philosopher Herbert Marcuse (who was praising homosexuality as an expression of dissent). In today’s atmosphere of what Marcuse would call “repressive tolerance,” such language would be considered “stigmatizing.”

The sociological imperative behind the spread of “political correctness” is the fact that we no longer live in patriarchal, hierarchical, mono-cultural societies, which exhibit general, if unreflective, agreement on basic values. The pathetic efforts to inculcate a common sense of “Britishness” or “Dutchness” in multi-cultural societies, however well-intentioned, attest to the breakdown of a common identity.

Public language has thus become the common currency of cultural exchange, and everyone is on notice to mind one’s manners. The result is a multiplication of weasel words that chill political and moral debate, and that create a widening gap between public language and what many ordinary people think.

The defense of free speech is made no easier by the abuses of the popular press. We need free media to expose abuses of power. But investigative journalism becomes discredited when it is suborned to “expose” the private lives of the famous when no issue of public interest is involved. Entertaining gossip has mutated into an assault on privacy, with newspapers claiming that any attempt to keep them out of people’s bedrooms is an assault on free speech.

You know that a doctrine is in trouble when not even those claiming to defend it understand what it means. By that standard, the classic doctrine of free speech is in crisis. We had better sort it out quickly – legally, morally, and culturally – if we are to retain a proper sense of what it means to live in a free society.

Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is Professor Emeritus of Political Economy at Warwick University.

 

Zombie Politics, Democracy, And The Threat of Authoritarianism

In Uncategorized on June 10, 2011 at 11:59 am

Oldspeak:”In the minds of the American public, the dominant media, and the accommodating pundits and intellectuals, there is no sense of how authoritarianism in its soft and hard forms can manifest itself as anything other than horrible images of concentration camps, goose-stepping storm troopers, rigid modes of censorship, and chilling spectacles of extremist government repression and violence. That is, there is little understanding of how new modes of authoritarian ideology, policy, values, and social relations might manifest themselves in degrees and gradations so as to create the conditions for a distinctly undemocratic and increasingly cruel and oppressive social order. As the late Susan Sontag suggested in another context, there is a willful ignorance of how emerging registers of power and governance “dissolve politics into pathology.”[10] It is generally believed that in a constitutional democracy, power is in the hands of the people, and that the long legacy of democratic ideals in America, however imperfect, is enough to prevent democracy from being subverted or lost. And yet the lessons of history provide clear examples of how the emergence of reactionary politics, the increasing power of the military, and the power of big business subverted democracy in Argentina, Chile, Germany, and Italy. In spite of these histories, there is no room in the public imagination to entertain what has become the unthinkable—that such an order in its contemporary form might be more nuanced, less theatrical, more cunning, less concerned with repressive modes of control than with manipulative modes of consent—what one might call a mode of authoritarianism with a distinctly American character.” – Henry A. Giroux

By Henry A. Giroux @ Truthout:

Introduction (Part I)

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world. -Hannah Arendt [1]

The Rise of Zombie Politics

In the world of popular culture, zombies seem to be everywhere, as evidenced by the relentless slew of books, movies, video games, and comics. From the haunting Night of the Living Dead to the comic movie Zombieland, the figure of the zombie has captured and touched something unique in the contemporary imagination. But the dark and terrifying image of the zombie with missing body parts, oozing body fluids, and an appetite for fresh, living, human brains does more than feed the mass-marketing machines that prey on the spectacle of the violent, grotesque, and ethically comatose. There is more at work in this wave of fascination with the grotesquely walking hyper-dead than a Hollywood appropriation of the dark recesses and unrestrained urges of the human mind. The zombie phenomenon is now on display nightly on television alongside endless examples of destruction unfolding in real-time. Such a cultural fascination with proliferating images of the living hyper-dead and unrelenting human catastrophes that extend from a global economic meltdown to the earthquake in Haiti to the ecological disaster caused by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico signals a shift away from the hope that accompanies the living to a politics of cynicism and despair. The macabre double movement between “the dead that walk”[2] and those who are alive but are dying and suffering cannot be understood outside of the casino capitalism that now shapes every aspect of society in its own image. A casino capitalist zombie politics views competition as a form of social combat, celebrates war as an extension of politics, and legitimates a ruthless Social Darwinism in which particular individuals and groups are considered simply redundant, disposable—nothing more than human waste left to stew in their own misfortune—easy prey for the zombies who have a ravenous appetite for chaos and revel in apocalyptic visions filled with destruction, decay, abandoned houses, burned-out cars, gutted landscapes, and trashed gas stations.

The twenty-first-century zombies no longer emerge from the grave; they now inhabit the rich environs of Wall Street and roam the halls of the gilded monuments of greed such as Goldman Sachs. As an editorial in The New York Times points out, the new zombies of free-market fundamentalism turned “the financial system into a casino. Like gambling, the transactions mostly just shifted paper money around the globe. Unlike gambling, they packed an enormous capacity for collective and economic destruction—hobbling banks that made bad bets, freezing credit and economic activity. Society—not the bankers—bore the cost.”[3] In this way, the zombie— the immoral, sub-Nietzschean, id-driven “other” who is “hyper-dead” but still alive as an avatar of death and cruelty—provides an apt metaphor for a new kind of authoritarianism that has a grip on contemporary politics in the United States.[4] This is an authoritarianism in which mindless self-gratification becomes the sanctioned norm and public issues collapse into the realm of privatized anger and rage. The rule of the market offers the hyper-dead an opportunity to exercise unprecedented power in American society, reconstructing civic and political culture almost entirely in the service of a politics that fuels the friend/enemy divide, even as democracy becomes the scandal of casino capitalism—its ultimate humiliation.

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But the new zombies are not only wandering around in the banks, investment houses, and death chambers of high finance, they have an ever-increasing presence in the highest reaches of government and in the forefront of mainstream media. The growing numbers of zombies in the mainstream media have huge financial backing from the corporate elite and represent the new face of the culture of cruelty and hatred in the second Gilded Age. Any mention of the social state, putting limits on casino capitalism, and regulating corporate zombies puts Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck,
Rush Limbaugh, and other talking heads into a state of high rage. They disparage any discourse that embraces social justice, social responsibility, and human rights. Appealing to “real” American values such as family, God, and Guns, they are in the forefront of a zombie politics that opposes any legislation or policy designed to lessen human suffering and promote economic and social progress. As Arun Gupta points out, they are insistent in their opposition to “civil rights, school desegregation, women’s rights, labor organizing, the minimum wage, Social Security, LGBT rights, welfare, immigrant rights, public education, reproductive rights, Medicare, [and] Medicaid.”[5] The walking hyper-dead even oppose providing the extension of unemployment benefits to millions of Americans who are out of work, food, and hope. They spectacularize hatred and trade in lies and misinformation. They make populist appeals to the people while legitimating the power of the rich. They appeal to common sense as a way of devaluing a culture of questioning and critical exchange. Unrelenting in their role as archetypes of the hyper-dead, they are misanthropes trading in fear, hatred, and hyper-nationalism.

The human suffering produced by the walking hyper-dead can also be seen in the nativist apoplexy resulting in the racist anti-immigration laws passed in Arizona, the attempts to ban ethnic studies in public schools, the rise of the punishing state, the social dumping of millions of people of color into prisons, and the attempts of Tea Party fanatics and politicians who want to “take back America” from President Barack Obama—described in the new lexicon of right-wing political illiteracy as both an alleged socialist and the new Hitler. Newt Gingrich joins Glenn Beck and other members of the elite squad of the hyper-dead in arguing that Obama is just another version of Joseph Stalin. For Gingrich and the rest of the zombie ideologues, any discourse that advocates for social protections, easing human suffering, or imagining a better future is dismissed by being compared to the horrors of the Nazi holocaust. Dystopian discourse and End Times morbidity rule the collective consciousness of this group.

The “death panels” envisaged by Sarah Palin are not going to emerge from Obama’s health care reform plan but from the toolkits the zombie politicians and talking heads open up every time they are given the opportunity to speak. The death threats, vandalism, and crowds shouting homophobic slurs at openly gay U.S. House Representative Barney Frank already speak to a fixation with images of death, violence, and war that now grips the country. Sarah Palin’s infamous call to a gathering of her followers to “reload” in opposition to President Obama’s policies—soon followed in a nationally televised press conference with a request for the American people to embrace Arizona’s new xenophobic laws—makes her one of the most prominent of the political zombies. Not only has she made less-than-vague endorsements of violence in many of her public speeches, she has cheerfully embraced the new face of white supremacy in her recent unapologetic endorsement of racial profiling, stating in a widely reported speech that “It’s time for Americans across this great country to stand up and say, ‘We’re all Arizonians now.’”[6] The current descent into racism, ignorance, corruption, and mob idiocy makes clear the degree to which politics has become a sport for zombies rather than engaged and thoughtful citizens.[7]

The hyper-dead celebrate talk radio haters such as Rush Limbaugh, whose fanaticism appears to pass without criticism in the mainstream media. Limbaugh echoes the fanatics who whipped up racial hatred in Weimar Germany, the ideological zombies who dissolved the line between reason and distortion-laden propaganda. How else to explain his claim “that environmentalist terrorists might have caused the ecological disaster in the gulf”?[8] The ethically frozen zombies that dominate screen culture believe that only an appeal to self-interest motivates people—a convenient counterpart to a culture of cruelty that rebukes, if not disdains, any appeal to the virtues of a moral and just society. They smile at their audiences while collapsing the distinction between opinions and reasoned arguments. They report on Tea Party rallies while feeding the misplaced ideological frenzy that motivates such gatherings but then refuse to comment on rallies all over the country that do not trade in violence or spectacle. They report uncritically on Islam bashers, such as the radical right-wing radio host Michael Savage, as if his ultra-extremist racist views are a legitimate part of the American mainstream. In the age of zombie politics, there is too little public outrage or informed public anger over the pushing of millions of people out of their homes and jobs, the defunding of schools, and the rising tide of homeless families and destitute communities. Instead of organized, massive protests against casino capitalism, the American public is treated to an endless and arrogant display of wealth, greed, and power. Armies of zombies tune in to gossip-laden entertainment, game, and reality TV shows, transfixed by the empty lure of celebrity culture.

The roaming hordes of celebrity zombie intellectuals work hard to fuel a sense of misguided fear and indignation toward democratic politics, the social state, and immigrants—all of which is spewed out in bitter words and comes terribly close to inciting violence. Zombies love death-dealing institutions, which accounts for why they rarely criticize the bloated military budget and the rise of the punishing state and its expanding prison system. They smile with patriotic glee, anxious to further the demands of empire as automated drones kill innocent civilians—conveniently dismissed as collateral damage—and the torture state rolls inexorably along in Afghanistan, Iraq, and in other hidden and unknown sites. The slaughter that inevitably follows catastrophe is not new, but the current politics of death has reached new heights and threatens to transform a weak democracy into a full-fledged authoritarian state.

A Turn to the Dark Side of Politics

The American media, large segments of the public, and many educators widely believe that authoritarianism is alien to the political landscape of American society. Authoritarianism is generally associated with tyranny and governments that exercise power in violation of the rule of law. A commonly held perception of the American public is that authoritarianism is always elsewhere. It can be found in other allegedly “less developed/civilized countries,” such as contemporary China or Iran, or it belongs to a fixed moment in modern history, often associated with the rise of twentieth-century totalitarianism in its different forms in Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union under Stalin. Even as the United States became more disposed to modes of tyrannical power under the second Bush administration—demonstrated, for example, by the existence of secret CIA prisons, warrantless spying on Americans, and state-sanctioned kidnaping—mainstream liberals, intellectuals, journalists, and media pundits argued that any suggestion that the United States was becoming an authoritarian society was simply preposterous. For instance, the journalist James Traub repeated the dominant view that whatever problems the United States faced under the Bush administration had nothing to do with a growing authoritarianism or its more extreme form, totalitarianism.[9] On the contrary, according to this position, America was simply beholden to a temporary seizure of power by some extremists, who represented a form of political exceptionalism and an annoying growth on the body politic. In other words, as repugnant as many of Bush’s domestic and foreign policies might have been, they neither threatened nor compromised in any substantial way America’s claim to being a democratic society.

Against the notion that the Bush administration had pushed the United States close to the brink of authoritarianism, some pundits have argued that this dark moment in America’s history, while uncharacteristic of a substantive democracy, had to be understood as temporary perversion of American law and democratic ideals that would end when George W. Bush concluded his second term in the White House. In this view, the regime of George W. Bush and its demonstrated contempt for democracy was explained away as the outgrowth of a random act of politics— a corrupt election and the bad-faith act of a conservative court in 2000 or a poorly run election campaign in 2004 by an uncinematic and boring Democratic candidate. According to this narrative, the Bush-Cheney regime exhibited such extreme modes of governance in its embrace of an imperial presidency, its violation of domestic and international laws, and its disdain for human rights and democratic values that it was hard to view such antidemocratic policies as part of a pervasive shift toward a hidden order of authoritarian politics, which historically has existed at the margins of American society. It would be difficult to label such a government other than as shockingly and uniquely extremist, given a political legacy that included the rise of the security and torture state; the creation of legal illegalities in which civil liberties were trampled; the launching of an unjust war in Iraq legitimated through official lies; the passing of legislative policies that drained the federal surplus by giving away more than a trillion dollars in tax cuts to the rich; the enactment of a shameful policy of preemptive war; the endorsement of an inflated military budget at the expense of much-needed social programs; the selling off of as many government functions as possible to corporate interests; the resurrection of an imperial presidency; an incessant attack against unions; support for a muzzled and increasingly corporate-controlled media; the government production of fake news reports to gain consent for regressive policies; the use of an Orwellian vocabulary for disguising monstrous acts such as torture (“enhanced interrogation techniques”); the furtherance of a racist campaign of legal harassment and incarceration of Arabs, Muslims, and immigrants; the advancement of a prison binge through a repressive policy of criminalization; the establishment of an unregulated and ultimately devastating form of casino capitalism; the arrogant celebration and support for the interests and values of big business at the expense of citizens and the common good; and the dismantling of social services and social safety nets as part of a larger campaign of ushering in the corporate state and the reign of finance capital?

Authoritarianism With a Friendly Face

In the minds of the American public, the dominant media, and the accommodating pundits and intellectuals, there is no sense of how authoritarianism in its soft and hard forms can manifest itself as anything other than horrible images of concentration camps, goose-stepping storm troopers, rigid modes of censorship, and chilling spectacles of extremist government repression and violence. That is, there is little understanding of how new modes of authoritarian ideology, policy, values, and social relations might manifest themselves in degrees and gradations so as to create the conditions for a distinctly undemocratic and increasingly cruel and oppressive social order. As the late Susan Sontag suggested in another context, there is a willful ignorance of how emerging registers of power and governance “dissolve politics into pathology.”[10] It is generally believed that in a constitutional democracy, power is in the hands of the people, and that the long legacy of democratic ideals in America, however imperfect, is enough to prevent democracy from being subverted or lost. And yet the lessons of history provide clear examples of how the emergence of reactionary politics, the increasing power of the military, and the power of big business subverted democracy in Argentina, Chile, Germany, and Italy. In
spite of these histories, there is no room in the public imagination to entertain what has become the unthinkable—that such an order in its contemporary form might be more nuanced, less theatrical, more cunning, less concerned with repressive modes of control than with manipulative modes of consent—what one might call a mode of authoritarianism with a distinctly American character. [11]

Historical conjunctures produce different forms of authoritarianism, though they all share a hatred for democracy, dissent, and civil liberties. It is too easy to believe in a simplistic binary logic that strictly categorizes a country as either authoritarian or democratic, which leaves no room for entertaining the possibility of a mixture of both systems. American politics today suggests a more updated if not a different form of authoritarianism. In this context, it is worth remembering what Huey Long said in response to the question of whether America could ever become fascist: “Yes, but we will call it anti-fascist.”[12] Long’s reply suggests that fascism is not an ideological apparatus frozen in a particular historical period but a complex and often shifting theoretical and political register for understanding how democracy can be subverted, if not destroyed, from within. This notion of soft or friendly fascism was articulated in 1985 in Bertram Gross’s book Friendly Fascism, in which he argued that if fascism came to the United States it would not embody the same characteristics associated with fascist forms in the historical past. There would be no Nuremberg rallies, doctrines of racial superiority, government-sanctioned book burnings, death camps, genocidal purges, or the abrogation of the U.S. Constitution. In short, fascism would not take the form of an ideological grid from the past simply downloaded onto another country under different historical conditions. Gross believed that fascism was an ongoing danger and had the ability to become relevant under new conditions, taking on familiar forms of thought that resonate with nativist traditions, experiences, and political relations.[13] Similarly, in his Anatomy of Fascism, Robert O. Paxton argued that the texture of American fascism would not mimic traditional European forms but would be rooted in the language, symbols, and culture of everyday life. He writes: “No swastikas in an American fascism, but Stars and Stripes (or Stars and Bars) and Christian crosses. No fascist salute, but mass recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance. These symbols contain no whiff of fascism in themselves, of course, but an American fascism would transform them into obligatory litmus tests for detecting the internal enemy.”[14] It is worth noting that Umberto Eco, in his discussion of “eternal fascism,” also argued that any updated version of fascism would not openly assume the mantle of historical fascism; rather, new forms of authoritarianism would appropriate some of its elements, making it virtually unrecognizable from its traditional forms. Like Gross and Paxton, Eco contended that fascism, if it comes to America, will have a different guise, although it will be no less destructive of democracy. He wrote:

Ur-Fascism [Eternal Fascism] is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be much easier for us if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Blackshirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world.[15]

The renowned political theorist Sheldon Wolin, in Democracy Incorporated, updates these views and argues persuasively that the United States has produced its own unique form of authoritarianism, which he calls “inverted totalitarianism.”[16] Wolin claims that under traditional forms of totalitarianism, there are usually founding texts such as Mein Kampf, rule by a personal demagogue such as Adolf Hitler, political change enacted by a revolutionary movement such as the Bolsheviks, the constitution rewritten or discarded, the political state’s firm control over corporate interests, and an idealized and all-encompassing ideology used to create a unified and totalizing understanding of society. At the same time, the government uses all the power of its cultural and repressive state apparatuses to fashion followers in its own ideological image and collective identity.

In the United States, Wolin argues that an emerging authoritarianism appears to take on a very different form.[17] Instead of a charismatic leader, the government is now governed through the anonymous and largely remote hand of corporate power and finance capital. Political sovereignty is largely replaced by economic sovereignty as corporate power takes over the reins of governance. The dire consequence, as David Harvey points out, is that “raw money power wielded by the few undermines all semblances of democratic governance. The pharmaceutical companies, health insurance and hospital lobbies, for example, spent more than $133 million in the first three months of 2009 to make sure they got their way on health care reform in the United States.”[18] The more money influences politics the more corrupt the political culture becomes. Under such circumstances, holding office is largely dependent on having huge amounts of capital at one’s disposal, while laws and policies at all levels of government are mostly fashioned by lobbyists representing big business corporations and commanding financial institutions. Moreover, as the politics of health care reform indicate, such lobbying, as corrupt and unethical as it may be, is not carried out in the open and displayed by insurance and drug companies as a badge of honor—a kind of open testimonial to the disrespect for democratic governance and a celebration of their power. The subversion of democratic governance in the United States by corporate interests is captured succinctly by Chris Hedges in his observation that

Corporations have 35,000 lobbyists in Washington and thousands more in state capitals that dole out corporate money to shape and write legislation. They use their political action committees to solicit employees and shareholders for donations to fund pliable candidates. The financial sector, for example, spent more than $5 billion on political campaigns, influenc[e] peddling and lobbying during the past decade, which resulted in sweeping deregulation, the gouging of consumers, our global financial meltdown and the subsequent looting of the U.S. Treasury. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America spent $26 million last year and drug companies such as Pfizer, Amgen and Eli Lilly kicked in tens of millions more to buy off the two parties. These corporations have made sure our so-called health reform bill will force us to buy their predatory and defective products. The oil and gas industry, the coal industry, defense contractors and telecommunications companies have thwarted the drive for sustainable energy and orchestrated the steady erosion of civil liberties. Politicians do corporate bidding and stage hollow acts of political theater to keep the fiction of the democratic state alive.[19]

Rather than being forced to adhere to a particular state ideology, the general public in the United States is largely depoliticized through the influence of corporations over schools, higher education, and other cultural apparatuses. The deadening of public values, civic consciousness, and critical citizenship is also the result of the work of anti-public intellectuals representing right-wing ideological and financial interests,[20] dominant media that are largely center-right, and a market-driven public pedagogy that reduces the obligations of citizenship to the endless consumption and discarding of commodities. In addition, a pedagogy of social and political amnesia works through celebrity culture and its counterpart in corporate-driven news, television, radio, and entertainment to produce a culture of stupidity, censorship, and diversionary spectacles.

Depoliticizing Freedom and Agency

Agency is now defined by a neoliberal concept of freedom, a notion that is largely organized according to the narrow notions of individual self-interest and limited to the freedom from constraints. Central to this concept is the freedom to pursue one’s self-interests independently of larger social concerns. For individuals in a consumer society, this often means the freedom to shop, own guns, and define rights without regard to the consequences for others or the larger social order. When applied to economic institutions, this notion of freedom often translates into a call for removing government regulation over the market and economic institutions. This notion of a deregulated and privatized freedom is decoupled from the common good and any understanding of individual and social responsibility. It is an unlimited notion of freedom that both refuses to recognize the importance of social costs and social consequences and has no language for an ethic that calls us beyond ourselves, that engages our responsibility to others. Within this discourse of hyper-individualized freedom, individuals are not only “liberated from the constraints imposed by the dense network of social bonds,” but are also “stripped of the protection which had been matter-of-factly offered in the past by that dense network of social bonds.” [21]

Freedom exclusively tied to personal and political rights without also enabling access to economic resources becomes morally empty and politically dysfunctional. The much-heralded notion of choice associated with personal and political freedom is hardly assured when individuals lack the economic resources, knowledge, and social supports to make such choices and freedoms operative and meaningful. As Zygmunt Bauman points out, “The right to vote (and so, obliquely and at least in theory, the right to influence the composition of the ruler and the shape of the rules that bind the ruled) could be meaningfully exercised only by those ‘who possess sufficient economic and cultural resources’ to be ‘safe from the voluntary or involuntary servitude that cuts off any possible autonomy of choice (and/or its delegation) at the root….[Choice] stripped of economic resources and political power hardly assure[s] personal freedoms to the dispossessed, who have no claim on the resources without which personal freedom can neither be won nor in practice enjoyed.”[22] Paul Bigioni has argued that this flawed notion of freedom played a central role in the emerging fascist dictatorships of the early twentieth century. He writes:

It was the liberals of that era who clamored for unfettered personal and economic freedom, no matter what the cost to society. Such untrammeled freedom is not suitable to civilized humans. It is the freedom of the jungle. In other words, the strong have more of it than the weak. It is a notion of freedom that is inherently violent, because it is enjoyed at the expense of others. Such a notion of freedom legitimizes each and every increase in the wealth and power of those who are already powerful, regardless of the misery that will be suffered by others as a result. The use of the state to limit such “freedom” was denounced by the laissez-faire liberals of the early 20th century. The use of the state to protect such “freedom” was fascism. Just as monopoly is the ruin of the free market, fascism is the ultimate degradation of liberal capitalism.[23]

This stripped-down notion of market-based freedom that now dominates American society cancels out any viable notion of individual and social agency. This market-driven notion of freedom emphasizes choice as an economic function defined largely as the right to buy things while at the same time cancelling out any active understanding of freedom and choice as the right to make rational choices concerning the very structure of power and governance in a society. In embracing a passive attitude toward freedom in which power is viewed as a necessary evil, a conservative notion of freedom reduces politics to the empty ritual of voting and is incapable of understanding freedom as a form of collective, productive power that enables “a notion of political agency and freedom that affirms the equal opportunity of all to exercise political power in order to participate in shaping the most important decisions affecting their lives.”[24] This merging of the market-based understanding of freedom as the freedom to consume and the conservative-based view of freedom as a restriction from all constraints refuses to recognize that the conditions for substantive freedom do not lie in personal and political rights alone; on the contrary, real choices and freedom include the individual and collective ability to actively intervene in and shape both the nature of politics and the myriad forces bearing down on everyday life—a notion of freedom that can only be viable when social rights and economic resources are available to individuals. Of course, this notion of freedom and choice is often dismissed either as a vestige of socialism or simply drowned out in a culture that collapses all social considerations and notions of solidarity into the often cruel and swindle-based discourse of instant gratification and individual gain. Under such conditions, democracy is managed through the empty ritual of elections; citizens are largely rendered passive observers as a result of giving undue influence to corporate power in shaping all of the essential elements of political governance and decision making; and manufactured appeals to fear and personal safety legitimate both the suspension of civil liberties and the expanding powers of an imperial presidency and the policing functions of a militaristic state.

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I believe that the formative culture necessary to create modes of education, thought, dialogue, critique, and critical agency—the necessary conditions of any aspiring democracy—is largely destroyed through the pacification of intellectuals and the elimination of public spheres capable of creating such a culture. Elements of a depoliticizing and commodifying culture become clear in the shameless propaganda produced by the so-called “embedded” journalists, while a corporate-dominated popular culture largely operates through multiple technologies, screen cultures, and video games that trade endlessly in images of violence, spectacles of consumption, and stultifying modes of (il)literacy. Funded by right-wing ideological, corporate, and militaristic interests, an army of anti-public intellectuals groomed in right-wing think tanks and foundations, such as the American Enterprise Institute and Manhattan Institute, dominate the traditional media, police the universities for any vestige of critical thought and dissent, and endlessly spread their message of privatization, deregulation, and commercialization, exercising a powerful influence in the dismantling of all public spheres not dominated by private and commodifying interests. These “experts in legitimation,” to use Antonio Gramsci’s prescient phrase, peddle civic ignorance just as they renounce any vestige of public accountability for big business, giant media conglomerates, and financial mega corporations. How else to explain that nearly twenty percent of the American people believe incorrectly that Obama is a Muslim!

Under the new authoritarianism, the corporate state and the punishing state merge as economics drives politics, and repression is increasingly used to contain all those individuals and groups caught in an expanding web of destabilizing inequality and powerlessness that touches everything from the need for basic health care, food, and shelter to the promise of a decent education. As the social state is hollowed out under pressure from free-market advocates, right-wing politicians, and conservative ideologues, the United States has increasingly turned its back on any semblance of social justice, civic responsibility, and democracy itself. This might explain the influential journalist Thomas Friedman’s shameless endorsement of military adventurism in the New York Times article in which he argues that “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist—McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the U.S. Air Force F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”[25] Freedom in this discourse is inextricably wedded to state and military violence and is a far cry from any semblance of a claim to democracy.

Zombie Politicas and the Culture of Cruelty

Another characteristic of an emerging authoritarianism in the United States is the correlation between the growing atomization of the individual and the rise of a culture of cruelty, a type of zombie politics in which the living dead engage in forms of rapacious behavior that destroy almost every facet of a substantive democratic polity. There is a mode of terror rooted in a neoliberal market-driven society that numbs many people just as it wipes out the creative faculties of imagination, memory, and critical thought. Under a regime of privatized utopias, hyper-individualism, and ego-centered values, human beings slip into a kind of ethical somnolence, indifferent to the plight and suffering of others. Though writing in a different context, the late Frankfurt School theorist Leo Lowenthal captured this mode of terror in his comments on the deeply sedimented elements of authoritarianism rooted in modern civilization. He wrote:

In a system that reduces life to a chain of disconnected reactions to shock, personal communication tends to lose all meaning….The individual under terrorist conditions is never alone and always alone. He becomes numb and rigid not only in relation to his neighbor but also in relation to himself; fear robs him of the power of spontaneous emotional or mental reaction. Thinking becomes a stupid crime; it endangers his life. The inevitable consequence is that stupidity spreads as a contagious disease among the terrorized population. Human beings live in a state of stupor, in a moral coma.[26]

Implicit in Lowenthal’s commentary is the assumption that as democracy becomes a fiction, the moral mechanisms of language, meaning, and ethics collapse, and a cruel indifference takes over diverse modes of communication and exchange, often as a register of the current paucity of democratic values, identities, and social relations. Surely, this is obvious today as all vestiges of the social compact, social responsibility, and modes of solidarity give way to a form of Social Darwinism with its emphasis on ruthlessness, cruelty, war, violence, hyper modes of masculinity, and a disdain for those considered weak, dependent, alien, or economically unproductive. A poverty of civic ideals is matched not only by a poverty of critical agency but also by the disappearance among the public of the importance of moral and social responsibilities. As public life is commercialized and commodified, the pathology of individual entitlement and narcissism erodes those public spaces in which the conditions for conscience, decency, self-respect, and dignity take root. The delusion of endless growth coupled with an “obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization [and] uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, and disdain for the public sector” has produced a culture that seems “consumed by locusts” in “an age of pygmies.”[27]

This culture of cruelty is especially evident in the hardships and deprivations now visited upon many young people in the United States. We have 13.3 million homeless children; one child in five lives in poverty; too many are now under the supervision of the criminal justice system, and many more young adults are unemployed and lack any hope for the future.[28] Moreover, we are subjecting more and more children to psychiatric drugs as a way of controlling their alleged unruly behavior while providing huge profits for drug companies. As Evelyn Pringle points out, “in 2006 more money was spent on treating mental disorders in children aged 0 to 17 than for any other medical condition, with a total of $8.9 billion.”[29] Needless to say, the drugging of American children is less about treating genuine mental disorders than it is about punishing so-called unruly children, largely children of the poor, while creating “lifelong patients and repeat customers for Pharma!”[30] Stories abound about poor young people being raped, beaten, and dying in juvenile detention centers, needlessly trafficked into the criminal justice system as part of a profit-making scheme cooked up by corrupt judges and private correction facilities administrators, and being given powerful antipsychotic medicines in schools and other state facilities.[31] Unfortunately, this regression to sheer Economic Darwinism is not only evident in increasing violence against young people, cutthroat reality TV shows, hate radio, and the Internet, it is also on full display in the discourse of government officials and politicians and serves as a register of the prominence of both a kind of political infantilism and a culture of cruelty. For instance, the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, recently stated in an interview in February 2010 that “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina.”[32] Duncan’s point, beyond the incredible inhumanity reflected in such a comment, was that it took a disaster that uprooted thousands of individuals and families and caused enormous amounts of suffering to enable the Obama administration to implement a massive educational system pushing charter schools based on market-driven principles that disdain public values, if not public schooling itself. This is the language of cruelty and zombie politicians, a language indifferent to the ways in which people who suffer great tragedies are expelled from their histories, narratives, and right to be human. Horrible tragedies caused in part by government indifference are now covered up in the discourse and ideals inspired by the logic of the market. This mean and merciless streak was also on display recently when Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer, who is running for the Republican nomination for governor in South Carolina, stated that giving people government assistance was comparable to “feeding stray animals.” The utterly derogatory and implicitly racist nature of his remark became obvious in the statement that followed: “You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.”[33]

Lowenthal’s argument that in an authoritarian society “stupidity spreads as a contagious disease” is evident in a statement made by Michele Bachmann, a Republican congresswoman, who recently argued that “Americans should purchase [health] insurance with their own tax-free money.”[34] That 43 million Americans are without health insurance because they cannot afford it seems lost on Bachmann, whose comments suggest that these uninsured individuals, families, unemployed workers, and children are not simply a disposable surplus but actually invisible and therefore unworthy of any acknowledgment.

The regressive politics and moral stupidity are also evident in the emergence of right-wing extremists now taking over the Republican Party. This new and aggressive political formation calls for decoupling market-driven financial institutions from any vestige of political and governmental constraint, celebrates emotion over reason, treats critical intelligence as a toxin possessed largely by elites, wraps its sophomoric misrepresentations in an air of beyond-interrogation “we’re just folks” insularity, and calls for the restoration of a traditional, white, Christian, male-dominated America.[35] Such calls embody elements of a racial panic that are evident in all authoritarian movements and have increasingly become a defining feature of a Republican Party that has sided with far-right-wing thugs and goon squads intent on disrupting any vestige of the democratic process. This emerging authoritarian element in American political culture is embodied in the wildly popular media presence of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck—right-wing extremists who share a contempt for reason and believe in organizing politics on the model of war, unconditional surrender, personal insults, hyper-masculine spectacles, and the complete destruction of one’s opponent.

The culture of cruelty, violence, and slander was on full display as the Obama administration successfully passed a weak version of health care reform in 2010. Stoked by a Republican Party that has either looked away or in some cases supported the coded language of racism and violence, it was no surprise that there was barely a peep out of Republican Party leaders when racial and homophobic slurs were hurled by Tea Party demonstrators at civil rights legend Jon Lewis and openly gay Barney Frank, both firm supporters of the Obama health policies. Even worse is the nod to trigger-happy right-wing advocates of violence that conservatives such as Sarah Palin have suggested in their response to the passage of the health care bill. For instance, Frank Rich argues that

this bill that inspired G.O.P. congressmen on the House floor to egg on disruptive protesters even as they were being evicted from the gallery by the Capitol Police last Sunday. It’s this bill that prompted a congressman to shout “baby killer” at Bart Stupak, a staunch anti- abortion Democrat. It’s this bill that drove a demonstrator to spit on Emanuel Cleaver, a black representative from Missouri. And it’s this “middle-of-the-road” bill, as Obama accurately calls it, that has incited an unglued firestorm of homicidal rhetoric, from “Kill the bill!” to Sarah Palin’s cry for her followers to “reload.” At least four of the House members hit with death threats or vandalism are among the 20 political targets Palin marks with rifle crosshairs on a map on her Facebook page.[36]

There is more at work here than the usual right-wing promotion of bigotry and ignorance; there is the use of violent rhetoric and imagery that mimics the discourse of terrorism reminiscent of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, dangerous right-wing militia groups, and other American-style fascists. As Chris Hedges insists, “The language of violence always presages violence”[37] and fuels an authoritarianism that feeds on such excesses and the moral coma that accompanies the inability of a society to both question itself and imagine an alternative democratic order. How else can one read the “homicidal rhetoric” that is growing in America as anything other than an obituary for dialogue, democratic values, and civic courage? What does it mean for a democracy when the general public either supports or is silent in the face of widely publicized events such as black and gay members of Congress being subjected to racist and homophobic taunts, a black congressman being spit on, and the throwing of bricks through the office windows of some legislators who supported the health care bill? What does it mean for a democracy when there is little collective outrage when Sarah Palin, a leading voice in the Republican Party, mimics the tactics of vigilantes by posting a map with crosshairs on the districts of Democrats and urges her supporters on with the shameful slogan “Don’t Retreat. Instead—RELOAD!” Under such circumstances, the brandishing of assault weapons at right-wing political rallies, the posters and signs comparing Obama to Hitler, and the ever-increasing chants to “Take Our Country Back” echoes what Frank Rich calls a “small-scale mimicry of Kristallnacht.”[38] Violence and aggression are now openly tolerated and in some cases promoted. The chants, insults, violence, and mob hysteria all portend a dark period in American history—an historical conjuncture in the death knell for democracy is being written as the media turn such events into spectacles rather than treat them as morally and politically repugnant acts more akin to the legacy of fascism than the ideals of an aspiring democracy. All the while the public yawns or, more troubling, engages fantasies of reloading.

Unfortunately, the problems now facing the United States are legion and further the erosion of a civic and democratic culture. Some of the most glaring issues are massive unemployment; a rotting infrastructure; the erosion of vital public services; the dismantling of the social safety net; expanding levels of poverty, especially for children; and an imprisonment binge largely affecting poor minorities of color. But such a list barely scratches the surface. In addition, we have witnessed in the last thirty years the restructuring of public education as either a source of profit for corporations or an updated version of control modeled after prison culture coupled with an increasing culture of lying, cruelty, and corruption, all of which belie a democratic vision of America that now seems imaginable only as a nostalgic rendering of the founding ideals of democracy.

NOTES

1. Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (1968; New York: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 196.

2. I have taken this term from Stephen Jones,ed.,The Dead That Walk (Berkeley,CA: Ulysses Press, 2010).

3. Editorial, “Wall Street Casino [6],” The New York Times (April 28, 2010), p. A24.

4. Some of the ideas come from Richard Greene and K. Silem Mohammad, eds., Zombies, Vampires, and Philosophy: New Life for the Undead (Chicago: Open Court, 2010).

5. Arun Gupta, “Party of No: How Republicans and the Right Have Tried to Thwart All Social Progress [7],” Truthout.org (May 21, 2010).

6. Jonathan J. Cooper, “We’re All Arizonians Now [8],” Huffington Post (May 15, 2010).

7. See the excellent commentary on this issue by Frank Rich, “The Rage Is Not About Health Care,” The New York Times (March 28, 2010), p. WK10. See also Justine Sharrock, “The Oath Keepers: The Militant and Armed Side of the Tea Party Movement [9],” AlterNet (March 6, 2010); and Mark Potok, “Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism [10],” Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Report 137 (Spring 2010).

8. Paul Krugman, “Going to Extreme,” The New York Times (May 16, 2010), p. A23.

9. James Traub, “The Way We Live Now: Weimar Whiners [11],” The New York Times Magazine ( June 1, 2003). For a commentary on such intellectuals, see Tony Judt, “Bush’s Useful Idiots [12],” The London Review of Books 28:18 (September 21, 2006).

10. Cited in Carol Becker, “The Art of Testimony,” Sculpture (March 1997), p. 28.

11. This case for an American version of authoritarianism was updated and made more visible in a number of interesting books and articles. See, for instance, Chris Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (New York: Free Press, 2006); Henry A. Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008); and Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

12. Cited in Paul Bigioni, “Fascism Then, Fascism Now [13],” Toronto Star (November 27, 2005).

13. See Bertram Gross, Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1985).

14. Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), p. 202.

15. Umberto Eco, “Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt,” New York Review of Books (November–December 1995), p. 15.

16. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated.

17. Along similar theoretical lines, see Stephen Lendman, “A Look Back and Ahead: Police State in America [14],” CounterPunch (December 17, 2007). For an excellent analysis that points to the creeping power of the nation- al security state on American universities, see David Price, “Silent Coup: How the CIA Is Welcoming Itself Back onto American University Campuses,” CounterPunch 17:3 (January 13–31, 2010), pp. 1–5.

18. David Harvey,“Organizing for the Anti-Capitalist Transition [15],” Monthly Review (December15, 2009).

19. Chris Hedges, “Democracy in America Is a Useful Fiction [16],” TruthDig (January 24, 2010).

20. See Janine R. Wedel, Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

21. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty (London: Polity Press, 2007), pp. 57–58.

22. Ibid., p. 64.

23. Bigioni, “Fascism Then, Fascism Now.”

24. Cornelius Castoriadis, “The Nature and Value of Equity,” Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy: Essays in Political Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 124–142.

25. ThomasL.Friedman,“A Manifesto for the Fast World [17],”The New York Times Magazine (March 28, 1999).

26. Leo Lowenthal, “Atomization of Man,” False Prophets: Studies in Authoritarianism (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1987), pp. 182–183.

27. Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land (New York: Penguin Press, 2010), pp. 2–3.

28. I have taken up this issue in my Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability? (New York: Palgrave, 2009). For a series of brilliant commentaries on youth in America, see the work of Tolu Olorunda in The Black Commentator, Truthout, and other online journals.

29. Evelyn Pringle, “Why Are We Drugging Our Kids?,” Truthout (December 14, 2009), http://www.alternet.org/story/144538 [18].

30. Ibid.

31. See Nicholas Confessore, “New York Finds Extreme Crisis in Youth Prisons,” The New York Times (December 14, 2009), p. A1; Duff Wilson, “Poor Children Likelier to Get Antipsychotics,” The New York Times (December 12, 2009), p. A1; and Amy Goodman, “Jailing Kids for Cash [19],” Truthout (February 17, 2009).

32. Jake Tapper, “Political Punch: Power, Pop, and Probings from ABC News Senior White House Correspondent—Duncan: Katrina Was the ‘Best Thing’ for New Orleans School System [20],” ABC News.com ( January 29, 2010).

33. Nathaniel Cary, “GOP Hopeful: People on Public Assistance ‘Like Stray Animals [21],’” Truthout ( January 23, 2010).

34.Cited in Frank Rich, “The State of Union Is Comatose, ”The New York Times (January 31 ,2010).

35. See, for example, Patrick J. Buchanan, “Traditional Americans Are Losing Their Nation [22],” WorldNetDaily (January 24, 2010).

36. Frank Rich, “The Rage Is Not About Health Care,” The New York Times (March 28, 2010), p. WK10.

37. Chris Hedges, “Is America ‘Yearning for Fascism’? [23],” TruthDig (March 29, 2010).

38. Rich, “The State of the Union Is Comatose,” p. WK10.

Totalitarian Democracy

In Uncategorized on March 21, 2011 at 2:15 pm

Protesters rally in Madison, Wisconsin.

Oldspeak:” ‘The United States has become the showcase of how democracy can be managed without appearing to be suppressed. This has come about not through a Leader’s imposing his will or the state’s forcibly eliminating opposition, but through certain developments, notably the economy, that promoted integration, rationalization, concentrated wealth, and a faith that virtually any problem from health care to political crises, even faith itself – could be managed, that is, subject to control, predictability, and cost-effectiveness in the delivery of the product. Voters are made as predictable as consumers; a university is nearly as rationalized in its structure as a corporation; a corporate structure is as hierarchical in its chain of command as the military. The regime ideology is capitalism which is virtually as undisputed as Nazi doctrine was in 1930s Germany...’ “-Sheldon Wolin

By Richard Lichtman @ Truthout:

What follows is clearly not a thoroughly articulated perspective, but a call to others to present their own understanding of the situation we face.

Those of us who have wondered how fascism would come, if and when it came, did not sufficiently credit the possibility that it would arrive through the process of law and “freely chosen” representatives of the people. We were too much given to dramatic, filmic versions of the occasion, influenced perhaps by images of “body snatchers” from another galaxy, or aliens as they were depicted in “Independence Day.” There is often the exogamous tendency to imagine that catastrophe must come from beyond our shores, whether defined geographically, culturally or psychologically. It is always “them,” not “us,” that is the source of our disaster. Even when the foreign intrusion took a mortal form, we were more likely to view our antagonists in ways that denied their actual humanity.

We have now come face-to-face with the fact that the agents of contemporary totalitarianism are people who, in many respects, are remarkably like ourselves and who – while they differ in their political perspectives – do, in the course of routine, daily life, rise up and lie down very much as we do, engaging the rounds of normalcy very much as we might ourselves. And yet, these are the same people who would, quite casually it seems, terminate democracy as we understand it, all the while insisting that they are actually fulfilling the requirement of a democratic system as it has been defined by law. In Wisconsin, for example, the Republican Party maintains that it was fairly elected by the citizenry and is now carrying out the mandate that has been imposed on to care for the general welfare as it understands that concept. And is this not a valid account of the events that have brought it to its place of power?

Everything depends on what we mean by the term “valid.” In its pure form, much of what has been happening in America has followed the principles that the founders of the Constitution regarded as “valid,” including the right of the legislature and the courts to interpret, and then reinterpret, the original meaning as they deemed it appropriate. The decisions rendered in the cases of Bush v. Gore or Citizens United were made by nine justices and determined by a vote of five. This process was mandated by the framers and duly executed. But in accepting the formal validity of these decisions, I do not intend for a moment to deny that these procedures were, by any understanding of the intended purpose of the Constitution and the arc of its historical additions, what we may rightfully refer to as a corruption of the “the spirit of democracy.” As a sociopolitical development, the Constitution was the embodiment of what was most progressive in 18th-century understanding of the function of government. The original formation of constitutional law was never understood as a document meant to stand in utter isolation from the culture and society that gave it birth. It was not produced de novo, but arose from a general understanding of the larger purpose of social life and its obligations and virtues.

So it is that the Constitution is preceded by a preamble that sets out the purpose of the ensuing document and claims that its ultimate intention is to:

form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the General Welfare, andsecure the Blessing of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.

 

I reiterate this aspect of the creation of the Constitution because it is has become a trick of the right-wing, libertarian, negative view of freedom to maintain that we are most free when we are left alone to do as we please. The preamble takes a completely opposed view and leads to the Constitution – certainly not a listing of what the government may not do, but instead, an elaboration of what must be done if the process of governing is to be regarded as valid. The Bill of Rights must be seen in the light of these considerations.

In reasserting the significance of the preamble, I have no intention of denying the profound failures its lofty language served to obfuscate. It is abundantly clear that the document derives from a class structure intended to maintain a position of wealth and prevailing power, nor does it intend to remove the structure of domination and exploitation upon which its own foundation rests. I only intend to note that the form of the Constitution was designed to achieve a purpose, and that purpose is what I am referring to as its substance, its spirit, its culture. And it should be noted that there are two ways this culture can be judged: whether its vision of the good life is admirable and whether this vision is extended to all its participants or is preserved for the benefit of the privileged few. My own view is that the original intention is clearly more successful in the first design than the second. In its time, it stood for a richer view of human fulfillment than was generally available, though its conception of equality is clearly class-contrived.

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The original system of class domination that was “legally” altered over the intervening years in regard to race and gender was never undone. So, when further changes were made in American life in accordance with a more just definition of equality, they were made within the confines of the prevailing system of class power that has endured from the beginning. The current structure is clearly different in its substance from the earliest formation of class power, as the economic system in which the classes are located has clearly undergone profound change. Since the time of the Civil War and the formation of the American colossus and its dual economy of corporate domination and social remainder, the course of capitalist domination has been set. Whatever further “progressive” change has been achieved has forfeited its full potentiality to the tendencies of an expanding corporate control. In this process, democracy has been more and more corrupted, as Sheldon Wolin notes in “Democracy Inc.: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism,” a work that has been blatantly ignored.

The United States has become the showcase of how democracy can be managed without appearing to be suppressed. This has come about not through a Leader’s imposing his will or the state’s forcibly eliminating opposition, but through certain developments, notably the economy, that promoted integration, rationalization, concentrated wealth, and a faith that virtually any problem from health care to political crises, even faith itself – could be managed, that is, subject to control, predictability, and cost-effectiveness in the delivery of the product. Voters are made as predictable as consumers; a university is nearly as rationalized in its structure as a corporation; a corporate structure is as hierarchical in its chain of command as the military. The regime ideology is capitalism which is virtually as undisputed as Nazi doctrine was in 1930s Germany.

 

This aspect of Wolin’s argument seems to me essential. What it lacks is a deeper psychological grasp of the impact of this system on the lives of ordinary men and women. What is it to be alienated, exploited, deceived, betrayed, eviscerated and generally pulverized by a dream that bears claws and shreds the lives of those to whom it simultaneously holds out a receding hope? Much will depend on the social location of the individuals involved, for their mechanisms of defense and attack will vary depending on the resources available to these different groups and the manner in which their comprehension has been influenced. We have done very poorly in coming to understand how various segments of our population are ideologically constituted, and so we lack the techniques by which we could participate in the process of raising these aggressive and defensive structures to the light of day.

What we witness in Wisconsin is obviously a vehement response to an insult carried too far, a denial of one’s history and humanity. It is a wound crusted over that is still capable of feeling pain when it is assaulted. Whether it has the capacity to heal itself remains to be seen. The participants in this resistance are drawn from various aspects of the American working class and, as such, they have different and sometimes conflicting views of how the situation is to be remedied and this protofascist attack turned back. They are not yet a class and certainly not a “liberal class,” to utilize Chris Hedges’ confusing terminology. Liberalism is the idealized articulation of the perspective of the capitalist class, of that segment of the corporate structure that owns, controls and generally directs the process of capitalist development and its continual quest for accumulation. It is not completely unified, as various segments of this stratum will embody different and conflicting interests – as importers and exporters, financers and “captains” of heavy industry. But no matter what their differences, they agree on fundamentals: accumulation, the profit motive, private property, inequality of reward, entitlement, their superiority.

Those of us who oppose the most vicious aspect of this “ruling capitalist class” now directing retrograde politics in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and New Jersey must come to understand that unless the corporate ground of the political tendency is unearthed and comprehended for the deeply totalitarian corruption it is, it cannot be defanged. The current attack on labor is an aspect of a larger attempt to destroy collectivity wherever it presents itself. Behind its facade of “individualism,” neoliberalism is the concerted effort to turn the commonly constituted public into a private enclave of corporate wealth and power. The fierce and wholly illogical decision of the Supreme Court to continue the idiotic farce that would deem the corporation a “person” is one manifestation of this process. The corporation as a “person” would have the right to accumulate wealth in the manner and to the extent that it saw fit.

Another facet of the same drive to accumulate wealth and power in the hands of the few is, of course, the destruction of unions. Any single individual is obviously incapable of withstanding the power of the corporation; only collectivities have any conceivable chance of being successful. The labor movement and the unions which are its representatives, given their long history, social location, and embodiment in American life, have the potential power to withstand the venal power of corporations. The Tea Party and other such calamitous confusions will eventually come to the sort of end that has destroyed all those who do not understand just who is the master and who the servant. But a great deal of suffering can be visited on the nation while this defeat is being enacted. Now is the time for all of us to engage in the intellectual activity of understanding what forces are in play and the practical task of forcing back and destroying the monstrous army of these protofascist directors and retainers.


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