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When is a Coup Not a Coup?

Counting Coup

by ANDREW LEVINE

When is a coup not a coup?  When the Commander-in-Chief says it’s not.  That is how it is now with the coup (or whatever the State Department calls it) in Egypt.

If they call it what it is, the Obama Administration is required by law to cut off aid to the Egyptian army.  That would jeopardize what little leverage they still have in the Arab world’s most populous country, now that there are no reliably subservient autocrats holding the reins of power there.

The American taxpayer’s money has been pouring into the Egyptian army’s coffers for thirty-four years –ever since Jimmy Carter bought (“brokered”) peace between Egypt and Israel at Camp David.

No sane imperialist would risk throwing that away; only a fool, like John McCain, who lacks the sense he was born with, would even think about it.

Were the United States to sever ties with the Egyptian army, it would be bad for Israel too; that surely also weighs on Obama’s mind.

There may be no love lost between the “security services” of those two countries, but there is an understanding and therefore a modicum of stability from which Israel benefits.  When Israel is happy, the Israel lobby is happy; and Obama rests easy.

Evidently, that political reality is not understood by all sectors of the Israeli Right.  If it were, McCain and his co-thinkers would be singing a different tune.

Of course, for Obama, laws are there to obey or disobey as the occasion warrants.

The man is, at best, a serial violator of the spirit of the laws – especially the Fourth, but also the First and Fifth, Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.  Basic principles of international law – like respect for national sovereignty and for the human rights of persons seized abroad as prisoners — fare no better.

Obama is not much of a stickler for abiding by the letter of the law either.  Therefore, no matter how clear it is that aid to post-coup Egypt must be cut off, don’t count on him to do it anytime soon.

The Obama way – unlike the more brazen George W. Bush way – is, wherever possible, to reinterpret or even change laws, no matter how clear they may be, in order to make his government’s lawlessness and its acquiescence in the lawlessness of others possible, whenever that suits his purpose.

This is why banksters and torturers prosper while Guantanamo prisoners on hunger strikes are force-fed, and why his drones kill non-combatants of all ages, genders and nationalities (including American).

In the days ahead, expect the Obama White House to come forth with a torrent of legalistic obfuscation and nitpicking of the “I did not have sex with that woman, ever” kind, but with the difference that Obama is more shameless and smoother than Bill Clinton ever was.

Let those who obsess over Law School rankings take note: insofar as those two Leaders of the Free World are representative specimens, Harvard beats Yale in the sleaze department by a significant margin.

There are also coups in process closer to home.  One of them has been going on for decades.  At first, the pace was so slow that the American public could almost be forgiven for not noticing.

But no longer: not since the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center provided the Bush and Obama Administrations with enough “get out of jail free” cards to enable our leaders to get away with more than just murder.

“Coup” is a bit of a misnomer – because a slowly unfolding coup is what logicians call a contradictio in adjecto, a contradiction in terms.  The word suggests an abrupt transformation, a change that takes place in a flash.  The adjective contradicts what it modifies.

But in this case, there is no right word – not so much because the phenomenon is unprecedented as because it is has yet to be properly named.

Until it is, “coup” is as good a name as any inasmuch as what has been going on is coup-like in every other respect.

The word calls attention to the fact that the United States has undergone a regime change as profound as in any bona fide coup d’état.

And it also suggests that forces external to the political system implemented the change — as in more standard cases, including the current Egyptian one.

Regime change can be, and often is, the work of forces internal to the society undergoing transformation.  It can come about through evolutionary processes or it can result from deliberate, revolutionary activity.

When there are coups, however, fundamental changes are imposed from outside – if not directly through the offices of foreign powers, then by a military that stands apart from the society it officially protects and defends.

It took the Egyptian army barely two days to change the Egyptian political scene fundamentally.  Our “bipartisan” political class – a group as insulated from popular control as any army — has taken decades to do as much.

The fact that their coup has taken place in slow-motion affects how it is perceived.  This is why most Americans, unlike most Egyptians, don’t quite understand what has happened.  But the results are similar, and are every bit as far-reaching.

* * *

What has been overthrown and replaced is the form of government established in Philadelphia in 1787 – a concoction based upon a division of powers into independent executive, legislative and judicial branches, each of which “checks and balances” the other.

Formally, that system still exists.  Substantively, however, it has been changed beyond recognition.

For one thing, the distribution of power has been reconfigured; the executive branch has assumed many of the powers originally assigned to Congress.

Congress still controls the money and is therefore still relevant.  But its power is a shadow of what it used to be.  Nowhere is this more evident than in matters of war and peace.

Despite all the wars the United States has waged over the past seven decades, Congress has not issued a single declaration of war since 1941, as our Constitution plainly says it must when military actions are undertaken.    

Instead, it has “authorized” the use of force.  Lately, these authorizations have been so open-ended that they give the executive branch carte blanche to do almost anything it wants.  Even more than George Bush, Obama has taken full advantage.

For the diminution of Congressional power, we mainly have a succession of imperial presidents to thank.  But these presidents couldn’t have gotten away with it without the active cooperation of Congress itself.

The judiciary’s power to overrule Congress and the White House – to operate as a super-legislature or executive — is not itself a Constitutional provision, but the practice is so deeply entrenched that it is almost never contested.

The Supreme Court today, the Roberts Court has been especially flagrant in its usurpation of legislative powers.

But then, in ways that have only recently become apparent, even its own powers have been impinged upon – thanks largely to its own connivance.

We know this because The New York Times has been shamed into doing its job – ever so slightly.  Try as they might, they could not just continue only serving as an unofficial propaganda arm of the American government while the The Guardian actually practiced journalism by reporting on whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s revelations of National Security Agency spying.

And so, the Times reported last Sunday that, operating in secret, the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court, the so-called FISA court, comprised of eleven members — chosen by (who else?) Chief Justice John Roberts — has without public scrutiny or meaningful oversight “quietly become almost a parallel Supreme Court, serving as the ultimate arbiter on surveillance issues and delivering opinions that will most likely shape intelligence practices for years to come.”

In other words, even the Supremes are no longer supreme.

They are in theory, of course; just as, in theory, only Congress can declare war.  The Constitution has not been “suspended,” as it was in Egypt.  It is just ignored with impunity whenever that suits the government’s purpose.

And, to make matters worse, it is not even the government that is calling the shots, so much as what is supposedly just part of its executive branch – the part that is not subject to popular control even in theory; the part that has metastasized into a security-military complex.

So long as this is the case, the fact that our Constitution has not been suspended like Egypt’s was is a distinction without a difference.

However it is also a reason for hope – a slender reed, but better than nothing at all.

Because ours is still officially a Constitutional republic, it is not yet impossible, within the existing political framework, to restore the kind of Constitutional government our founders envisioned.

Indeed, had Americans elected a President in 2008 who was anything like the President many of them thought they had voted for, he might have been able to turn things around.  At least he had enough political capital in the first few months of his Administration – before he squandered it utterly.

And were Congress not full of pusillanimous, bought and paid for Democrats and Republicans who care not a wit about the public good, it could still assert the authority that is rightfully its own.

But, whatever was once the case, the Democratic Party now is probably beyond redemption.  It has been that way ever since Bill Clinton had his way with it two decades ago.

Many liberals thought otherwise in 2008; but after five years of Barack Obama and Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, it is hard to see how even they can sustain the illusion.

Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans live in mortal fear of constituents even more benighted than themselves.  Thanks to gerrymandering, they mostly represent “safe” districts.  Therefore they don’t need to appeal to Democrats or “centrists” or to sane people at all; they need only please the GOP-Tea Party lunatic fringe.

Don’t count on them, therefore, to restore Constitutional government.  Because, as they see it, it never hurts to oppose Obama, they may sometimes do the right thing.  But they will never do it for the right reasons.  They are a risible and untrustworthy lot.

Had our decrepit Congress not established the FISA court and then turned its administration over to a crusading right-wing Chief Justice, we might now have a judicial system that is still somewhat respectful of basic rights and liberties.  Instead we have an unaccountable kangaroo court surreptitiously quashing them at every opportunity.

Politicians in capitalist societies are always constrained by the exigencies of capitalist development, though the degree of constraint varies, depending on circumstances.  As a general rule, though, they cannot do anything much if they do not, so to speak, get with the program.

This is why in states in capitalist societies counter-systemic policies are non-starters.  They cannot be sustained or, in most circumstances, even attempted.

In America today, however, there are more than just the usual constraints at work.

From the seventies on, our government has pursued policies that have transformed capitalism in the United States and other capitalist centers.  As a result, the financial sector has become the driving force of capital accumulation – to a degree that is unprecedented in the history of capitalism.

In this brave new world of finance capital, financial markets reign supreme.  And increasing economic inequality has wiped out many of the progressive achievements of the preceding century.

Our capitalists, the one percent of the one percent, have become as obscenely rich as capitalists have ever been, and they always get their way.  It is not just that they constrain political actors; in America today, they own them.

And they like the way things are.  No Constitutional republic for them; and certainly no democracy where the popular masses, the demos, rule; from their point of view, “we, the people” are the enemy.

We are not living in a full-fledged police state; far from it.  But our political class is hard at work putting the infrastructure for one in place.

It is because he made that reality so painfully apparent that Edward Snowden has become Public Enemy Number One, and a hero to people throughout the entire world.

He is the one the coup leaders want to suppress; and the one the rest of us want and need to hear.

We need to hear, beyond any shadow of a doubt, just how our Constitutional form of government has been overthrown, and how our political leaders, in service to the one percent of the percent, have brought this about.

* * *

In Latin America, they tell a joke: why has the United States never suffered a coup?  Because it has no American embassy.

True enough for those who fetishize the details of paradigmatic instances of bona fide coups d’état.

But the punch line is false in the larger sense.  To pull of a coup here, our capitalists didn’t need an embassy or a CIA or any of those special ops (Murder Incorporated) types our Commander-in-Chief loves to deploy.

They may need them in the future; and they are preparing the groundwork in case they do.  But to get to where we now are, none of that was necessary.

In an overripe capitalist economy like ours, base and servile politicians in league with “impersonal” market forces have been more than enough.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).