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U.S. military adventures have historically combined imperial ambition—the acquisition of territory and colonies, limiting the reach of competing empires and ‘acquiring’ economic resources—‘natural’ resources, existing economic infrastructure and labor, under advantageous terms. The U.S. orchestrated coup in Honduras was for United Fruit, in Chile for ITT, Kennecott and Anaconda Copper and the CIA’s ‘war of attrition’ against Nicaragua in the 1980s to undo the nationalization of Coca Cola facilities. The botched war on and occupation of Iraq was a continuation of imperial designs on Middle Eastern oil by the U.S. and Britain dating from the early twentieth century. All of these and many, many more conflated the economic interests of particular U.S. ‘based’ corporations with the ‘national interest.’
Selling wars of economic conquest as ‘democracy’ and / or ‘freedom’ was an open joke amongst Washington elites for the bulk of recent decades. Presidents hired advertising agencies to devise ‘marketing’ schemes to sell their wars. The visible idiocy of these schemes fed on the psychological trauma fear-mongering and regular mass slaughters in the ‘national interest’ caused the purposely-misinformed populace. The Cold War was perpetuated by successive administrations because the contrived bogeyman of ‘communism’ had been so effectively sold in support of Western economic predation. By putting a ‘political’ patina on imperial wars the hoax / fallacy of political morality became a fundamental part of the American story. And the irony of cynical demagogues selling botched foreign policy as ‘they hate us for our freedoms’ meets its match in dim corporate-state fascists selling totalitarian surveillance to ‘protect’ us from the consequences of botched foreign policy.
It is in this historical context recent disclosures of ‘classified’ government documents led to charges of treason against those making them—Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning and others, by ‘official’ Washington. Treason is yet another well-sold term popularly meaning the knowing betrayal of ‘the nation’ as legal construct, historical artifact and broad set of social relations. Those making the charge, President Obama and prominent Senators and Representatives, proclaim themselves empowered to make it as Marketers-in-Chief of imperial power. Deference to unity in ‘nation’ through the charge of treason is a sleight-of-hand to peel-off those the current chair-occupiers of empire wish to exile.
It is no accident the first line of attack against Mr. Snowden was to impugn his credibility by arguing he was a ‘high school dropout’ and a ‘lowly analyst.’ In the first place, this is irrelevant to the disclosures—they in no way depended on Mr. Snowden’s ‘credentials’ because if they did, and the official line was he lacked the credentials to be a credible ‘leaker,’ then he also lacked the credentials to be treasonous. (If what was leaked wasn’t credible then charges of treason are moot). The received wisdom is this attack was to diminish Mr. Snowden’s standing. But the more likely explanation was to separate the right to ‘treason’ into classes of those with and without the right. President Obama and Senator Diane Feinstein claim the right to create law at their whim, break existing laws at their whim and commit ‘treason’ at their whim and they don’t want ‘just anyone’ impinging on their territory.
The American public largely supports this view, but on what basis? Part is no doubt the inculcated premise America is classless, and therefore political-economic power accrues to those who ‘deserve’ it. But as the political and economic catastrophes of recent years amply illustrate—the war on and occupation of Iraq and the financial ‘crisis’ requiring trillions in public largesse to (faux) rectify, fools, liars and thieves are just as likely to inhabit the rarefied environs of power as those who ‘merit’ it. (That this leadership is largely inherited suggests societies ‘winners’ come from a decidedly pedestrian gene pool). And evolving from modern history, the notion of common interests in governance was always a play to American gullibility—Ms. Feinstein and Mr. Obama aren’t arguing they better serve the public interest through acting against the Constitution, they argue they have the power to do so and others (Snowden, Manning) don’t. Only the riff-raff need explain themselves goes the thinking.
The evidence of class bases for laws, policing and incarceration resides in plain sight here in the U.S. In addition to the history of U.S. military power being used in corporate interests, bankers and their representatives wrote the banking laws that led to recent catastrophe and they are writing the laws to ‘rectify’ the laws they previously wrote. The official rationale is they know best how to operate ‘their’ businesses despite the fact they still exist on the public dole from their last catastrophe. Several decades ago the policing of business and the rich was abandoned under ‘deregulation’ while the policing of the poor and social ‘out’ groups was militarized and made increasingly intrusive. And representation in the jails and prisons is overwhelmingly of social ‘out’ groups and those who can’t afford competent legal representation (a/k/a the poor). In claiming their right to decide their own laws and to stand outside of effective policing and incarceration, Barack Obama, Diane Feinstein et al are the political representatives of the ruling class.
So again, it isn’t ‘treason’ or ‘crimes’ Mr. Obama and Ms. Feinstein are reacting to—it is the impudence of ‘the help’ exposing the workings of the political-economic elite to those who might (correctly) see themselves on the other side of them. Mr. Obama’s and NSA chief Keith Alexander’s attempts to link illegal NSA spying on Americans to ‘thwarted’ terrorist attacks had no content behind them. They do however have the history of cynical insiders using contrived ‘others’ to sell their personal and class agendas behind them. This makes the ‘treason’ charged by official Washington acts against the ruling class, not against ‘the nation.’ To be clear, official Washington sees acts by political and economic elites against the rest of the citizenry—domestic spying, illegal murder of citizens and economic predation, being in the public interest and disclosure of those that might challenge ruling class power as against the ‘public’ interest.
Likewise, there appears eternal mystery on the part of the compassionate right—liberals and progressives, why the corporate media are tools of corporate leaders and their servants in government. It is no accident Andrew Ross Sorkin, Jeffrey Toobin and David Gregory use the royal ‘we’ to conflate their interests as rich, connected, white ‘journalists’ with those of Mr. Obama and Ms. Feinstein. The received wisdom is ‘access’ to elite sources is behind the ‘affectation,’ but it is no affectation. The strategy to ‘universalize’ narrow interests through the use of totalizing language (‘we’) is class politics 101. These ‘journalists’ are responding to disclosure of class ‘secrets’ that threaten their privilege, not to acts against the public interest. (‘Access’ is to report what elites say, not what they do (a/k/a journalism) and these brave folk have a greater chance of dying from choking on Jell-O than from terrorist attacks).
Western economists and politicians have explained the past several decades in terms of economic policies as if these policies are disconnected from the architecture and actions of ‘government.’ The bank ‘bailouts’ are seen in isolation from the treatment bank ‘customers’ subsequently received through bank-friendly government policies. Much has been made of the vast quantities of public resources handed the banks without meaningful constraints while the astounding misery and economic harm fraudulent foreclosure ‘prevention’ programs (HAMP) caused ‘ordinary’ citizens are treated as accidents caused by poor management. And in fact, dim elites (Timothy Geithner) argued using bailout money to buy down the negative equity resulting from the housing crash risked ‘moral hazard’ while unconstrained handouts to bankers demonstrated to be corrupt and / or incompetent didn’t. The class bases for these claims couldn’t be more obvious.
Likewise, positioning the rich as ‘job creators’ places them as necessary to the functioning of ‘the economy’ just as Mr. Obama and Ms. Feinstein place their ‘right’ to murder citizens and illegally spy on us as in the public interest. In recent decades the rich—inherited wealth, corporate executives and financiers, have accrued great fortunes through ‘rentier’ income dependent on economically inefficient (in capitalist economics) market power. Market power is contrary to economic democracy the same way totalitarian government is to political democracy. However, as regressive tax cuts, bank bailouts and government policies to diminish the power of labor demonstrate, it is the rich who are driving government policy. This can be seen through the privatization of state functions—a transfer from public to private coffers, and through the merging of state and private law making (ALEC), policing and imprisonment.
Through his ‘Insider Threat’ program to force government workers to turn one another in for the ‘treason’ of unofficial disclosures President Barack Obama is proving himself the most cynical tool of corporate-state interests in recent history. The premise again is it is one’s position in the corporate-state bureaucracy that determines whether actions are in the public interest, not the actions themselves. The practical effect is to shove all power up the ‘chain of command’ because it is only the ruling class that has state sanction to ‘act in the public interest,’ meaning their own. Put another way, the policy is to redefine the public interest as what the ruling class says it is regardless of political-economic effect. L’etat, c’est moi is historically the realm of absolute monarchs and tyrants. I put this to his dwindling supporters where this leaves Mr. Obama (and the rest of imperial Washington).
But again, the government is but a tool of the rich. The anti-statists on the right have the relation of tyranny backwards—capitalism isn’t freedom from the state, it is the crafting of the state to work in ruling class interests. Barack Obama and Diane Feinstein aren’t calling Mitt Romney and Apple Computer treasonous because they avoid paying the taxes on which the government depends. They, like the angry rubes on the corporate-libertarian right, laud inherited wealth, corporate executives and financiers, and all of their actions are toward consolidating their wealth and power while diminishing that of the rest of us. Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning aren’t traitors; they are good citizens who assumed the social responsibility to act in the public interest against ruling class interests. The political framing of their actions as ‘treason’ is an effort at willful misdirection.
What the liberals and progressives still unsure of what to make of the disclosures of ‘kill lists’ and NSA spying on American citizens don’t appear to understand is if you aren’t clearly on the inside you’re on the outside– the declared enemies of Mr. Obama and Ms. Feinstein, through these programs. Cornel West frames it well as ‘we are all suspects now.’ You can blithely assume you have nothing to hide but that misses the purpose of the murder and spy programs—they are to create terror (and corporate profits), not to destroy it. If you don’t understand how pervasive, intrusive and insidious these programs are, yet still support ‘official’ Washington, you deserve what you get. The rest of us would benefit from joining with our comrades around the globe on the side of imperial power Washington and Wall Street has placed us on.
Rob Urie is an artist and political economist in New York. His book, Zen Economics, will be published by CP/AK Press in 2014.