America at the Precipice


CP  writers Sperber and Kampmark, among others, superbly discuss legal-moral-political implications, respectively, of the revelations of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden in their exposure of US government war crimes (Manning) and domestic spying on a comprehensive scale (Snowden) and, especially, where this leaves us a nation presumably under the rule of law.  Let me add: No other country in the world presently stands out so nakedly—the Manning-Snowden symbolism—in clamping down hard on internal dissent, on erecting secrecy into a principle of the state (now capitalized in practice as the State, the National Security State), on developing the legal arguments and provisions which legitimate the suspension of the Constitution in the name of the law.  Supplementary baggage doesn’t help: the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, targeted assassinations, illegal, unwarranted intervention, all of these, now under Obama, as the continuance and intensification of the work of his predecessors, for which he must therefore take full responsibility (even more so, since the previous contours of policy were well-known, and he willingly followed suit), places the US in the unenviable position of representing a society almost alone, by its action, in combining domestic repression and foreign aggression, becoming the more integrated the further each is pursued, in order to cover up the other.

Manning-Snowden should be viewed as a unitary political-structural phenomenon, inseparable from the direction America is taking (a) as an historical process of the militarization and financialization of American capitalism, (b) necessitating that in this mature stage (of impending decline) drastic steps be taken to maintain what before had been unilateral dominance in economic and political affairs, and (c) among these is suffocating internal dissent for a course of permanent war and the violation of international law.

Manning and Snowden obviously speak truth to power, and less obviously, rip away the façade of liberal democracy to reveal the hard core of punitive authoritarianism in the service of a concentrated system of economic power, a corporatist ethos of respect for hierarchical arrangements of class and wealth, and deference to a political authority itself beholden to exactly the structure of wealth (capitalism) and its military sources of support.

Correctly, US authority perceives the dangers raised by Manning and Snowden, that of awakening the people to a real understanding of the privileged total sham, which passes for public policy, under which we all live.  Hence, secrecy, surveillance, intimidation, at home, atrocities abroad, whatever it takes to keep the show on the road, except that with Manning and Snowden the world can see America’s gnawing fear about being found out, the lengths to which it will go to remain on top, rather than live among others peacefully and modestly, two words absent from the national vocabulary.

Obama plots hegemony, hegemony by every available means, starting from the modernization of the nuclear arsenal through the pursuit of paramilitary operations on a grand scale and global in scope.  Manning and Snowden, each obstructs the path of the juggernaut, each identifies humanity as a transcendent ideal, each has a conception of patriotism in which the president’s much-vaunted trade-offs between national security and privacy are seen as phony and odious in the extreme, for there are no trade-offs where freedom is concerned, and the best national security lies in not doing harm to others.

Aggression meets retaliation.  And privacy is the last thing wanted, when it is the burden of government (here Obama-Holder-Brennan-NSA-DOJ-FBI-CIA-JSOC, etc. etc.) to instill a false sense of pride, the official brand of patriotism, into the consciousness of its people (subjects?) of military glory and the triumph of American business in the markets of the world.  The assault on privacy, precisely like the wanton killing of civilians through drone strikes, a one-two punch of domination that is intended to put the world on notice of America’s capacity for acting unrestrained and with impunity, puts the raw component of power on display for others to see, appreciate, and submit to.  Surveillance at home, under the spurious cover of counterterrorism, naturally a good idea, indeed brilliant in that using the hostility built up over decades (anticommunism) to tap into the latest manufactured scare, is an idea any self-respecting despot and his national-security advisers would approve.

For in this way, the populace internalizes its own false consciousness and thereby affords the leadership free grace to pursue its military adventures.  Surveillance and the commission of war crimes, these become the Patriotic Duo of US culture, ideology, and politics.  With that becoming set in stone, can fascism be far behind?

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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