The New McCarthyism


One does not have to be a right-wing nutcase to apprehend the dangers of government, a position staked out by Republicans and pseudolibertarians (“pseudo” because almost invariably concerned with taxation, rampant individualism, and laissez-faire business aggrandizement, rather than its originative creed, the sacredness of the human person) to push for unrestrained capitalist development, while the Left in America still regards, uncritically, government per se as the friend of the common people.  Both evade the necessary critical awareness of the conditions shaping what government represents and its potentialities for advancing societal well-being.  Let’s forget here the Right; we know its nostrums ad nauseum: Get off my back; screw the next guy; wealth accumulation by fair means or foul, without government interference!  It is the Left, or what passes for the Left, that concerns me here, Obama’s assorted groupies and hero-worshippers, “liberals” and “progressives” who are satisfied by apparent victory on cultural issues (who wouldn’t look good, in light of Republican/conservative positions on abortion, contraception, gay rights?) meanwhile overlooking war, assassination, widening differentials of class, income, and power, and the other fundamentals of a democratically-functioning society, from the state of the environment to the vigorous strengthening of civil rights and civil liberties, from the quality and character of education to the bedrock institutional contributions to human dignity, such as in the case at hand a deep and abiding respect for privacy of the person.

Liberals and progressive passively watch, or quietly turn their collective head away, Obama’s steady (I might add, compulsive) erosion if not outright abrogation of individual personal freedom, nominally in the name of the National Security State, but possibly on a deeper almost visceral level, an attraction to or predisposition for authoritarianism, taking operational effect in weakening or dismantling the rule of law, and, for him, perhaps more important, a genuine desire for submission to power-concentrates in society: the wealthy, the military, the presumed pillars of strength incarnated in class-differentiation and the bearers of domination.  I am not playing Dr. Freud when I say this, because Obama’s callousness toward the deaths he inflicts on others (via armed drones for targeted assassination) bespeaks a rigid line of defenses rendering him entirely predictable in the one-way effort to depersonalize the American people as part of and in the process of erecting a  Tower of Strength, the structure of certitude which takes the form—the only form consistent with policy-trends running over at least a century—of American capitalism’s claims to global supremacy through the implementation of a strong military.

This requires Obama’s signature treatment of government, first, in order of construction, the absolute denial of transparency, which includes not only opaqueness in operations, but also a rejection of the people’s right to know, as a principle of governance (hence, the vigorous use of the Espionage Act against whistle-blowers and those, like Bradley Manning, who wish to let light into the secretive chambers of military and diplomatic policy-making); and second, through the vast resources of the National-Security apparatus, directly extend the tentacles of government into the citizenry’s mindset, ideas, thoughts, private dreams, stripping the individual bare before the Behemoth, to ensure total conformity or, more realistically, passivity, as the war machine and its partner-in-destiny capitalist accumulation at the top roll on.

Government could be the extension of the people, its inner standard and modus vivendi for society the democratization of power in all its attributes, and instead, under Obama, as himself the culmination of his predecessors’ actions since the aftermath of the Second World War (provided one add his own qualitative twist, the uptake, through stealth, of militarism), the instrument of surveillance, wiretapping, sliding easily into thought-control—but to what end?  That merits serious consideration, before it is too late.  Charlie Savage of the New York Times (May 7) has written an important article on the expansion of wiretap capabilities as an administration priority still in the planning stage.  My NYT Comment, on the White House moral vacuum, follows (May 8):

The phrase “wiretap capabilities” makes me shiver, although I’m not surprised in light of the Administration’s dismal record on civil liberties. When will so-called liberals and progressives speak out at the rapid deterioration of the rule of law and the abuse of power inhering in surveillance, wiretapping, and other assaults on privacy? Obama has proven himself contemptuous of basic Constitutional tenets affecting freedom of thought and association–a self-evident reversion to McCarthyism as, now, the US under his leadership embarks on a new era of the Cold War, no longer directed to Russia, and instead, China, of course, but also Third World societies embarked on alternative strategies of modernization.

This expansion of “wiretap capabilities” is frankly dangerous, the more so because it emanates from a Democratic president whose policies are scented with liberal rhetoric. The White House exists in a moral vacuum. That targeted assassination is fully entertained and practiced is at one with this phase of psychological-juridical control over the free expression of ideas. Both have reference to despotic ways of governance which have implications even beyond principles honoring privacy and free thought. Democracy itself is called into question.

Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University.


Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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