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Evil is not banal, pace Arendt; it is in this case (the US in the early 21st century) the systemization in government policy of an advanced capitalist society and political economy at the tipping point of structural-ideological senescence, now seemingly treading water because of economic dislocations more long- than short-term in nature, but actually poised—somewhat in desperation—to advance its militarized global expansion in an effort to maintain its unilateral position of world leadership in an international framework of multipolar centers of power, and therefore, objectively, destined ultimately to fail, a trajectory of decline eliciting a political-military response already in the present of an American-style FASCISM, the familiar concentration of wealth consolidated within and protected by an hierarchical societal formation institutionally directed to market fundamentalism and a compliant working class. In this setting, an America on the brink of totalitarianism, for good and sufficient reason, centuries’-long intervention, a steadily widening internal class-diifferentiation of wealth and power, xenophobia, and, since World War II, an unreasoning anticommunism having the result, intended or otherwise, of fear and abject conformity, thus muting if not silencing substantive dissent on national priorities, critical thought of ideological valuing of consumerism and capital accumulation, and informed discussion of alternative modes of social-economic development, President Obama is the near-perfect embodiment of a leader prepared to capitalize on historical trends of counterrevolution in America’s foreign policy and informal methods and mechanisms of social control domestically as uniquely representative of ruling-groups’ interests to carry forward a public policy entailing the financialization and militarization (the two nicely conjoined) of American capitalism. By this token, Obama is hardly a cog in Arendt’s imagined bureaucratic machinery, implying inertness and perhaps a rote cruelness, but an Eichmann of a different complexion, knowingly and actively performing the role of facilitator and/or enabler of the hegemonic paradigm so long taken for granted and inscribed in America’s ideological consciousness, yet—hence the desperation—no longer easily in reach.
He started slowly, for some reason thought anti-imperialist and economically progressive, such being the power of public relations, liberal political rhetoric, racial identity (as I state elsewhere, as a veteran of civil-rights demonstrations and organizational activity, including helping to forge a civil-rights/antiwar coalition, I am not intimidated by the liberal mindset of political correctness: Obama is not fit to be in the same company as blacks I protested with, or my personal hero Paul Robeson, as well as Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. DuBois, with whom I was privileged to shake hands, etc. etc.), and hitherto undetected perfidiousness in the 2008 campaign. Axelrod et. al., with the candidate’s help, put something over on us—until immediately after the Inauguration when suddenly we could start to take the measure of his appointments, notably, Geithner, at Treasury, Clinton, at State, and national-security advisers, such as Brennan, when it became apparent to those not bedazzled by appearance, Democratic-affiliation, the presumed forced-choice of Neanderthal-like reaction, that underlying continuities of policy and intent with the Bush II administration were not sundered, only deceptively glistened, a liberalization of Rightist practice and policy, as in humanitarian interventionism, same old, same old, illegal intervention, or as in health-care reform to sidetrack and obviate the need for the public option, let alone, single-payer, at the same time rewarding Big Pharma and the insurance companies.
Tragic, in the sense of “deplorable,” because the preponderance of what once had been the Left in America, and still styling itself liberal or progressive, has bought hook, line, and sinker, into this charade of social-welfare politics, peaceable international relations, and broad regulatory constraints on the business system (as well, we appreciate in hindsight, as indifference to, or unawareness of, the utter savaging of civil liberties), but also, tragic, in the more profound sense, in which (a) a protagonist has been defeated by (b) a stronger force, with (c) a sad conclusion exciting (d) pity, where (a) is the people, (b) the present government and its near-predecessors, (c) a terror-struck populace becoming habituated to social control at home and the doctrine of permanent war in foreign affairs, and (d) the eclipse of the nation’s democratic structure, form, and legitimacy, through increased reliance on CIA-JSOC paramilitary operations, armed drones for targeted assassination, stupendous military appropriations coupled with, in both budgetary and ideological terms, the shrinking and weakening of the social safety net—all, the burden of this book, under the “stewardship” of Obama, as a qualitative jump within, or intensification of, the broad historical continuum bequeathed by his predecessors. Obama is more than a sophisticated version of the hapless Bush II, his very sophistication, aided by the aforementioned liberalization of the extant Right, making him the more dangerous, from the standpoint of war policy and planning (e.g., the Pacific-first strategy for the containment and isolation of China) and government-business relations, a process of deregulation started under Clinton and systematized more adroitly under Obama. Even Cheney, with all his brashness, could not give more favorable treatment to the oil companies than Salazar of Interior.
This could have been written before the revelations of Edward J. Snowden, but the wide net of surveillance spread over the American people (and also foreign nationals) by the National Security Agency is of such moment as to confirm the political-structural-ideological trends toward an incipient totalitarianism no longer dismissible as ranting, conspiracy-theorization, or other forms of put-down. The danger is real. My life had been one of activism. Here I’m not interested in “solutions,” which, frankly, turn out to be, “Please, Mr. President, don’t you see…,” or, write to your congressperson or senator, or contribute to a New York Times ad, or wave a placard and hope motorists will honk as they drive by. Obama isn’t listening, nor Brennan, nor Feinstein, nor Clapper, Petraeus, Rice, Power, Rhodes. The more one approaches on bended knee, pleading, as though to reasonable men and women, the more their appetite is whetted for going further, perhaps an unconsciously-driven sadism, perhaps not, confident that the citizenry’s naivete , apathy, ignorance, or, of course, agreement, provides open space for unrestrained conduct. Add to a faltering political consciousness, as a decisive mass phenomenon of our time, the bred-into-us submissiveness (as Theodore Adorno, in 1950, described in The Authoritarian Personality, or, my interpretation, the institutionalization of ego-loss or individual’s depersonalization by means of the bludgeoning of sensibility to meet the needs of consumerism and a militaristic mindset), and one readily sees the almost-epistemological foundations (because economic and structural factors must also be taken into account) of popular docility toward and inability to mount, or fear of mounting, criticism about America per se, yet personified by its ruling groups, whether political, economic, military, and increasingly, their seamless connection.
Obama, deregulation, militarism, a systemic infusion of patriotism through media coverage, sports, even for some, the celebrity culture, as well as the failure to address climate change, unemployment, poverty, mortgage foreclosure, together point to a reification of America as God’s Own Kingdom on Earth and to other nations the Holy Grail for which they are zealously ever in quest (however, not its deficiencies in public policy, such as affecting the social safety net, of which they almost unanimously oppose), or so we are asked to believe. Reification is a maddening psychological-epistemological process, as measured by an unmediated political consciousness, not subject to screens which filter out adversarial and alternative thinking, projects, values, the product broadly speaking of cultural conditioning, selectively promoted, to satisfy ruling-groups’ needs and goals. Reification is the materialization of patriotic abstractions, such as freedom and democracy, which themselves have been largely honored in the breach, thus rendering the individual two steps removed from the real world on which critical awareness and heightened political consciousness depend. He/she introjects (or, if one prefers, internalizes) the very structure of power and affiliated ideas that, in turn, oppresses and/or confines the individual. Each individual becomes the incarnation of the nation in its mature, monopoly-capitalism form, a walking about in the persona of a mighty armed fortress-state, celebrating the glories of wealth accumulation and the military triumphs of battles won (even keeping a scorecard on opponents’ losses), while fending off as “enemies” domestic and foreign those who dare question “legitimate” Authority, as sanctified primarily by legislation which owes its supposed legitimacy to the existing (and historically, successively replenished and renewed) structural-economic configuration of wealth and power.
Through political-cultural conditioning, then, we absorb the systemic forces, notably, the hierarchical class structure inculcating obedience and passivity, which nullify the very concept of class in its positive guise: the instrument of social protest to achieve goals particular to the class; simply, class self-interest as the organizational base for challenging society’s dominant groups. This is wholly antithetical to the current practice of shielding the copartnership of government and business, a structural framework of capitalism intended to allow corporations and banks write their own regulations, then transmuted into legislation as the law of the land. Secretiveness here in the private realm corresponds to classification of government documents in the public, for the Obama Administration a giant repackaging of the Capitalist State for the obvious task of concealment of practices that, with public exposure, would be viewed as confirmatory of a totalitarian direction. Secrecy is antithetical to democracy, if by the latter we include government by the consent of the governed. Unless each and every case of classification can be justified by an impartial tribunal (itself now hopeless, given the politicization of the judiciary and of the law itself), classification is a lame pretext for deterring and ultimately suppressing the investigating and publicizing of government wrongdoing and criminality. Obama’s passion for impaling whistleblowers is by now self-evident. Edward Snowden is his Osama bin Laden, in both cases the essential fulcrum which enables him to mount an expansion of Executive Power, relatedly, enlarge the military budget, a key to that expanded power, in which militarism (the civilian window dressing for which is counterterrorism, as a parallel and complementary state of mind) forms an integral part, and to ensure completeness of the Obama paradigm of governance thus far, reduce the guarantees of Constitutional rights and attendant civil liberties, as now, the dastardly practice of widespread surveillance of the American public, whose reach encompasses the interlocking networks of “friends and allies” so as to constitute a global menace.
Evil, as I use it here, signifies the institutionalization of class political-structural-military dominance, not, however, as an impersonal force or process, but as the consciously furthered activity of power-groups in American society, determined on the globalization-of-one, a world system of capitalism, US-inspired as to ground rules and controlled as to patterns of trade, investment, and, not least, geopolitical and geostrategic arrangements and principles. Egocentric, but why also evil? Let the ghost of the vaporized child in Pakistan answer, the victim of a missile fired from an armed drone; or, the ghost of the infant in Cuba who died because of medicine denied by the American embargo for a treatable cancer; or the living ghosts in Guantanamo prison who are in a protracted hunger strike in protest against torture and unwarranted imprisonment. We don’t require disputatious academics dancing on the head of a pin to tell us what evil is. It is in front of our eyes, and if you need a mailing address, try 1400 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., with instructions to mimeograph copies to be handed out to the national-security advisers on Terror Tuesdays. Of course, said message will be instantly classified and stamped “Top Secret.”
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. His new book, Eichmann on the Potomac, will be published by CounterPunch/AK Press in the fall of 2013.