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The New Totalitarianism

Obama’s Legacy, Before Snowden and Now

by ANDREW LEVINE

Like Jackie Robinson, Barack Obama will be remembered for crossing a seemingly infrangible color line.

However the comparison stops there.  Playing in the major leagues, even for the Brooklyn Dodgers, hardly compares with becoming President of the United States.

On the other hand, Robinson did an outstanding job and his achievement has had lasting beneficial consequences.  Can anyone who is not an abject booster claim as much for Obama?

After that memorable Grant Park moment on election night and the concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the weekend before his first inauguration, there is not much more positive to say about the job he has done.

In addition to breaking the color line, there is also a chance that Obama will be remembered for major environmental catastrophes, though it is not likely inasmuch as sins of omission are less salient than sins of commission, and he is just one in a very long line of do-nothing American – and world — leaders.

To be remembered mainly for wrecking the planet, he would have to do something spectacular to promote global warming – letting frackers loose everywhere, for example, or actively promoting tar sands oil.  If he stays true to form, he is more likely just to let those things happen than to take charge of them himself.

If he gives the nuclear power industry free rein, and an inevitable accident occurs that renders large parts of the continent uninhabitable, all bets are off.  But that would have to happen on his watch, and the chances of that are also low.

And so, until not long ago, it looked like Obama would be remembered mainly for his role in fashioning a new model perpetual war regime.

Whereas before Obama, Constitutional restrictions on the executive branch’s power to take the country to war were acknowledged before being bypassed, they are now blatantly disregarded.

Whereas before he – and his predecessor — took office, the United States at least seemed to respect national sovereignty and to abide by longstanding tenets of international law (many of which it had helped establish), it has now become, functionally and unabashedly, a lawless state.

And whereas before Obama, “war” meant “boots on the ground,” it now means drones hovering in the air and “special” operatives poised to strike at the Commander-in-Chief’s pleasure.   Private contractors (unaccountable mercenaries) and semi-secret commando units trained in the dark arts of sabotage and assassination are the new GI Joes.  [The old GI Joes now busy themselves going after GI Janes.]

Obama’s idea is not so much to keep the economic conscripts who comprise our “volunteer” armed forces out of harm’s way; it is to keep domestic opinion on the empire’s side.

The best way to do that now, in his view, is not to try to turn the public bellicose; that is so Bush-Cheney.  Obama would rather keep the public on board by keeping it uninformed.

For their war mongering, Bush and Cheney got all the media help they could ask for.  Obama expects the same for his efforts to bamboozle public opinion.  So far, he has not been disappointed.

He was therefore on track for being remembered as the Drone President, the President who hid the empire’s juggernaut under the radar, as it were, both literally and figuratively.

Of course, he and his circle of advisors know that news of their murderous ways cannot be entirely suppressed, and they understand that blowback is virtually certain.

But they figure, not unreasonably, that just as the Afghanistan and Iraq wars would not have been possible had the draft still been in operation, future wars will not be possible if they produce too many “wounded warriors” and if, like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, they give rise to suicide epidemics among returning troops.

Let robots do the dirty work, therefore; and, when that is not enough, source out the killing to borderline psychopaths whom public-relations spinmeisters then turn into daring-do heroes.

The problem the empire’s stewards face is that it is becoming increasingly clear – domestically, as well as internationally — that American world dominance is a curse for all but the handful of obscenely rich capitalists who depend on it; and, of course, for those who benefit directly from the existence of an increasingly onerous military-industrial-national security state complex.

But those beneficiaries are the “folks,” as Barack Obama might say, who call the shots.

This is why Obama will be remembered as President Drone.  But that is not all he will be remembered for.

We know this thanks to Edward Snowden.

* * *

Snowden’s David and Goliath story is still unfolding – because while the empire’s victims everywhere applaud him, their leaders, most of them anyway, cannot be bothered to help him.

Despite offers of asylum from the popular-democratic governments of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Nicaragua – countries that until recently suffered mightily under the weight of American domination and that still have much to lose by defying Obama’s wishes — and despite the ambivalent support of the Russian government, Snowden has been holed up for more than a month in the transit section of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.

Reportedly, he is about to be accorded temporary asylum in Russia – at last – though getting past the final bureaucratic hurdles seems to have taken on Kafkaesque dimensions.  Then perhaps, in due course, he will be able to proceed on, in safety, to refuge in Latin America.

No doubt, we will someday learn why it is taking so long, and why, even without “documentation,” Russia cannot have simply put him on a plane to Cuba, from where he could easily reach his final destination.  This was Snowden’s plan weeks ago, when it seemed that Ecuador was prepared to give him refuge.

Would Obama dare impede a commercial Aeroflot flight the way he forced the plane carrying Evo Morales, Bolivia’s head of state, to land for inspection (for Snowden) in Vienna – in plain violation of international law?

Boris Yeltsin let the United States get away with almost anything it wanted; though it must be conceded, in partial mitigation, that, in the throes of a devastating regression back into capitalism, Russia was at the time extremely enfeebled.

By now, though, Russia is strong enough to uphold its dignity.  And Vladimir Putin, for all his flaws, is no Yeltsin.  Could that macho man nevertheless feel intimidated?  Why the long hesitation?

These are peripheral mysteries, interesting but of no great importance.

The important thing is that thanks to Snowden’s revelations, Obama will no longer be remembered just for his drones or for the escapades of his assassins.  He will be remembered as the Surveillance President as well.

These legacies are not as distinct as may appear, and not just because full spectrum surveillance is helpful for selecting targets to maim and kill.  The affinities run deeper.

The two are functionally of a piece because they both aim at the same goal: control over everything that can possibly bear on the fortunes of the elites Obama serves.

* * *

The word “totalitarianism” has a long, vexed and ideologically tendentious history.

The general idea is that totalitarian regimes concentrate all power into their own hands with a view to imposing common beliefs and values.  Their goal is to repress the consequences of social divisions, installing, in their stead, a unified collective will.

Italian fascists used the term to characterize their own ideology.

Then Cold War anti-Communists used it to identify Communism with Fascism on the grounds that both systems are hostile to privacy rights, independent media, free trade unions, and indeed to all civil society institutions that the state (or ruling Party) does not control.

The intended contrast was with liberalism though, plainly, there are varieties of illiberalism that are not totalitarian.

In any case, with Fascism no longer a pole of attraction or even a topic of much interest to the general public, the term was used pejoratively during the waning years of the Cold War to describe Communist societies only.

By then, the goal of forging a unified collective will had long been abandoned inside the Communist bloc, if indeed it had ever been seriously entertained.  But methods developed for suppressing dissent – totalitarian methods – still flourished there.

Communist countries excelled especially at surveillance.  With the technologies available at the time, they were as good at it as any state could.

But that was then; post-9/11 America puts them to shame.

It has dawned on many, in Germany especially, that the old East German Stasi, the archetypical totalitarian institution, could not begin to compete with our National Security Agency.   If the Stasi made the German Democratic Republic totalitarian, what does the NSA make the United States?

That the American government surveilled everything it could had long been suspected; thanks to Snowden’s whistle-blowing, this suspicion has now been confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt.

And a new model totalitarianism has therefore been revealed: it is exemplified in the world Obama wants to create, the world Snowden exposed.

One would think Obama would be proud: USA!  Number One!!  Instead, as a totalitarian would, he made Snowden public enemy Number One.

In promoting a new kind of totalitarianism, just as in forging a new war order, Obama is not so much an innovator as an accelerator of processes long in motion.

Because knowledge is power, governments everywhere have always wanted to know everything.   What is new now is that to a degree that is historically unprecedented, the American government has the means and opportunity to realize this age-old perfidious dream.

Of course, it hasn’t realized it perfectly; and probably never will – even if resistance remains insufficient for reversing Obama’s course.

“Totalitarianism” was always more aspirational than real; this is as true of Obama’s version as of Mussolini’s.  But the technology now is there, and the approximations are getting closer to the ideal.

This is why the Drone President is likely to be remembered too for being the most successful totalitarian leader in American history.

* * *

This twin legacy is best understood when the nature of the empire Obama presides over is taken into account.

It is unlike the empires of the past, including the recent past, because it is not directly territorial.

Washington works its will through the offices of officially sovereign states.  It has no extra-territorial provinces and its few colonies are largely self-governing.

Our empire is not territorial in another way too; its boundaries are undefined.

The state of Israel refuses to declare its boundaries officially because it is in the thrall of a strain of Zionist ideology that leads Israeli governments to covet the entire mythical (“biblical”) “land of Israel.”

The American empire covets the whole world – not to settle it or to rule it administratively, or to realize a covenant a realtor-God made with a Middle Eastern patriarch several millennia ago.  It covets everything because its elites are in the thrall of limitless greed.

But even they will make common cause with cooperative subordinates.  This is why there are parts of the world – the European Union, the “white” dominions of the former British empire, Japan and other developed Pacific rim nations — that are, for the time being, immune from Obama’s drones.

China and Russia are probably immune too – because they are too big and powerful to be run over roughshod.  This is plainly true of China; what happens with Snowden will tell, for now, whether Russia is equally immune.

Like all his predecessors since the Soviet Union fell, Obama would plainly like to treat Russia as a subordinate, much as he treats the UK or France.

For Snowden’s sake and therefore for the sake of transparency and an informed citizenry – for the sake, in other words, of all the preconditions for democratic governance – let us hope that he cannot.

In any case, when it comes to drones and assassins, it is open season everywhere outside the zone of immunity.

And when it comes to surveillance, it is open season literally everywhere – including, above all, right here in the Land of the Free.

This isn’t our grandparents’ totalitarianism; but it is totalitarian according to the literal meaning of the word.  It is totalitarianism Obama-style.

As much as for the murder, mayhem and terror his drones unleash, and for much the same reason, it is what Obama will be remembered for.  Thanks to Snowden it is now plain that this too will be Obama’s legacy.

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).