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Change you can believe in; no, change as the fuller articulation of US global hegemony, no semblance of scruples remaining. Obama did not arise in a policy vacuum. The main contours of American history from the start have sought and by the early 19th century achieved the establishment of a peculiarly crystalline capitalism as the foundation of the polity, culture, ideology—call it Exceptionalism if you will, but essentially it is antirevolutionary, systemically prone to class-differentiation and an ever-widening gulf with respect to wealth, income, power, all vested in a numerically small upper stratum buttressed by control over property and the mechanisms of government, and constantly expanding its reach both domestically (penetrating and defining American consciousness) and internationally (self-appointed architect of the world capitalist system and defender of the faith, against all alternative economic and belief systems). So, poor Obama. We can’t blame him for everything. BUT we can hold him accountable for the intensification of previous structural-political-ideological trends, all in the service of the selfsame upper stratum, whatever its changing and evolving composition and character.
We can, moreover, make him the litmus test for the utter grotesqueness of liberalism as it now exists, i.e., the mouthpiece for corporate capitalism in its presumably most sophisticated form. None of the Republican and Tea Party Neanderthalism, but the genuine article—the financialization and militarization of American capitalism brought now to the forefront, no longer existing in an incipient state, but muscles flexed, waving the new banner of humanitarian interventionism, to hide the old banner of imperialism pure and simple.
Obama’s Inversion? Everything is what it should not be, starting with the very regulatory framework thought to be in the service of the public interest. It, of course, never really was, except for isolated state experiments which the federal government largely nullified through preemption. At no point has America had a people’s government. Obama, however, rubs salt in the wound. His ultimate trajectory, an overriding National Security State which intentionally bleeds, and soaks up the revenue for, a life-sustaining social safety net, itself falling under the not-so-subtle pressures of privatization, as witness Obamacare with its corporate parasitism as one sector—there are many—of government-sponsored profit-taking to the major players (here, enough to go around for the health insurers, Big Pharma, etc).
Regulation does not regulate; it’s part of the internal rationalization process to ensure against unwanted internecine competition, so that monopolistic or oligopolistic business and banking structures emerge free from competition or public harassment, safely ensconced in the bosom of an all-caring, protective government. Why this political-economic affinity to monopolism, a state of mind Theodore Roosevelt first gave us in reasoning that a powerful economic base is essential to the projection of American power in the world. Somehow, the House of Morgan and a Battleship Navy go together. They still do, even if the bank name and the weapon(s) of choice change. Military Keynesianism is perhaps too glib a phrase and accounts for too little of the ruling Exceptionalism-militarism synthesis, yet, slightly reworked, it provides for some useful insights. Beyond the importance of defense industries to the national economy, the stock market, and employment rates, not a negligible factor when capitalism has reached an advanced, mature, or possibly senescent stage—America without Boeing or Halliburton would hardly be the same—it is rather the indirect contribution of monopolism to militarism that now, more than in TR’s day, proves decisive.
The American need for strength, prowess, feelings of invulnerability, as the ideological paradigm of growth, development, survival, runs deep, so deep as to be not only taken for granted, but viewed as by right the fruits of the virtues of capitalism, America its chief exemplar. The world is witness to the splendor of our achievements and institutions, all under God’s aegis and watchful eye. No intervention is wrong, no monopoly too big, no weapon system too inhumane. Militarism in this case works from the inside out: a structural core of business and banking giantism which blankets the American universe of thought and discourse, making acceptable the notion of hierarchy in all things pertinent to social control, from the class system and the internalization by lower social groups of their inferior status in the pecking order of domination and subordination, to the expected deference shown Authority, be it economic, political, military, the supposed “betters,” elite groups to which we all owe our well-being and security. Capitalism demands no less, so that, not coincidentally, business organization and military organization represent the same hierarchical features ensuring the transmission of authority from the top downward (and corresponding, as well, to the trickle-down framework of wealth creation), so that opponents, dissidents, even those not showing sufficient patriotism—whether to capitalism or the nation—must be marginalized, if not worse.
Mega-business is a source of identity and pride, inseparable from the nation and system that made it possible. It also, by chance, requires military support to make its way into the world of finance and trade. The core here dictates the environment in which it prospers: stable international capitalism as the groundwork within which the US is preeminent in regularizing political-economic relationships and power-arrangements found acceptable, on behalf of American capitalism, to essentially the same ruling groups holding sway in domestic society. In sum, we are habituated through educational and ideological overkill to think and act in terms of corporatism, hence in terms of militarism. Bestiality is smoothed out to indicate valor. Gradations of murder find social acceptance when done in the name of the nation, war, for starters, through drone assassination, torture, etc., the while leaving what stands behind the nation, capitalism, in shadows and entirely blameless.
Still, this is militarism at possibly one step removed, its presence informing an entire institutional and cultural order predicated on forcible acceptance and/or expansion of the American Way (deliberately kept open-ended so as to allow commodity fetishism, displays of armed strength, and actual military conquest, in joyful combination and integration, to do their work, with respective appeals to all classes). Closer to home, militarism under Obama is anything but remote or indirect; it is the cohesion holding society together, the cement making for bipartisan continuity in all things fundamental. (If Bill Clinton, Bush II, and Obama differ on intervention, war, capitalist needs as dictated by its leading players, I must have missed it.) Obama, for all his secretiveness, is the easiest to read, a smart-alecky take, using as a front, counterterrorism, on the global power system in which US military superiority will pull American capitalism back up by its bootstraps. Negotiate military alliances wherever possible, in order to ensure that feet have been planted for creating or enlarging a sphere of influence, notably, the Middle East and the Pacific, drone bases serving as sentinels in one, aircraft carrier battle groups in the other, and CIA-JSOC operations filling in the interstices and cutting a wider figure.
Who would have expected—in the summer of ’08, before the election to a first term? We had Geithner, before the Wall Street dust had even rubbed off (it never did); Hillary, transforming State into an annex of the Pentagon; Brennan, fresh from theories of “just war,” to fashion the hit-list which vaporized human beings; along with an assorted cast of presumed liberals, Rahm Emanuel being typical rather than odd-person out, and Larry Summers, the go-to-guy for a deregulated economy, hedge funds in the vanguard. This is surely a motley crew for purposes of achieving much-needed democratization. (From the standpoint of wealth-concentration, we are now about as far away as ever from a more equalitarian sharing of wealth and power.) Perhaps worse still, one finds not a word, not a breath, from Democrats, Obama on down to all but a few members of Congress, against the Behemoth which has come to occupy front and center of the US polity, and whose appetite for a perpetual state of readiness, as embodied in the doctrine of permanent war, is directed today against terrorism, tomorrow, fellow capitalists, whose growth and performance threaten to top our own, while waiting in the wings, intervention , boycotts, whatever appears most injurious, against socialists and whomever is perceived to represent alternative paths to modernization.
The outer shell of hegemony is left intact while the substance supporting the scaffolding, military power, is actually eating away at the vitals, the structure of society, so that the instrument of hegemonic might becomes the destroyer of that which it is intended to serve. Militarism has run amuck in America, a self-defeating condition because the resources it takes to keep Behemoth happy and in fighting trim (pardon the pun, if that is one) comes directly out of the hide of a comprehensive social safety net worthy of an advanced industrial society, especially one claiming to be the vehicle of global democracy and itself one. The absorptive process, a redirecting of national wealth into outright WASTE, breeds a cynicism in all concerned, leaders and led alike, converting the morally unthinkable into the pragmatic thinkable, and anaesthetizing the American mindset to militarism in its myriad forms, manifestations, and auxiliaries, e.g., massive surveillance, nominally, to combat terrorism, a condition then readapted to signify dissent, unorthodoxy, and lack of patriotism. War especially requires anaesthetizing, as when POTUS personally authorizes and selects targets for assassination. None of this is normal. For some time USG has been turned upside down. Interior signs contracts for drilling on public lands.
Health and Human Services sits idly by as the nation’s health is inadequately protected, and its FDA obliges all comers with dubious claims and insidious outcomes. State hires private contractors and negotiates their immunity as having diplomatic status for crimes they commit with impunity in the assigned countries, murder among them. Defense, but why go into that can of worms—a sprawling Murder, Inc., that would have been the envy of Lepke and gangsterdom in an earlier period. Everywhere the same, or nearly so—what I termed an inversion of organizational mission, i.e., doing the opposite through going over to the side of those to be regulated, and therefore having not the foggiest idea of, let alone the principle of, the public interest.
The social pathology of militarism is not the whole of the story, but it is Obama’s joystick both for guiding the ship of state and in literal terms a joy stick by which to derive the gratification and benefits of leadership, including the snappy salute deplaning, photo ops with top brass in the background, and, more seriously, actively participating in the rite of national greatness, whether that lies in confronting China or ordering paramilitary operations and drone assassinations increasingly worldwide. Yet, there is the further question of the relationship between militarism and capitalism, specifically, its unrestricted sway and ability to command acceptance and even devotion of those, here, Americans, who live under its influence. Economic patriotism is a case of psychopathology reinforced through and stimulated by militaristic visions of world supremacy.
Without the military-component, Exceptionalism would become threadbare, having no visible means of demonstration or exemplarity. All that would remain is stripped-down capitalism, a perhaps self-enclosed jungle of buyers and sellers at each other’s throats. Militarism satisfies the operational necessities which must be fulfilled to counter the proneness to stagnation, this by empowering a nation to dictate the terms of trade, orchestrate commercial and financial standards, and, when necessary, batter down obstructions to capitalist development and expansion—in this case, an American solipsistic view of the world which will not accept limits to its power, let alone countenance disparagement of its supposed ideals.
I am describing a continuous pattern, not to exonerate Obama, but to place him squarely within it, and I believe, intensifying its more damaging features. One could start with the early 19th century and the Monroe Doctrine, or later, the Open Door, essentially the Imperialism of Free Trade, or still later, the internationalism of Wilson, as integrating centralized banking with an active export-orientation, and on and on, but let’s pause instead on the past week—two things catching my eye. John Kerry in the last few days journeyed to Cairo and Riyadh, first to give the US’s blessings to the Egyptian generals, their military coup, the overthrow of the duly elected Morsi government, and therefore assist in burying the Arab Spring, and then, to the Saudi capital, where he hardly registered disapproval over its continuing conflict with Iran and other measures in the region. And Hillary Clinton is back in the news, the subject of an op-ed piece in The Times which criticized her manifest careerism, but said nothing about her own role at State in furthering two wars and waxing aggressive on counterinsurgency, Keystone XL, the facilitation of American capitalism abroad.
None of this is out of the ordinary, except that Kerry and Clinton, one, with a hard exterior and marshmallow interior (so eager is he to please), the other, hard-as-nails interior and somewhat soft exterior (determined to wield power), both superbly illustrate the free pass given the military and a geostrategic vision of global counterrevolution. Perfect for their time and place, compatriots in the advancement of an otherwise stalled American capitalism. As for the inversion of organizational mission, who ever thought the State Department would become another Pentagon?
My New York Times Comments on Michael R. Gordon’s article, “Egyptians Following Right Path, Says Kerry” (Nov. 4) and Frank Bruni’s op-ed piece, “Hillary in 2016? Not So Fast” (Nov. 5), both of which provided me the basis for exploring further, follow:
I Sec. Kerry appears to be on the wrong side of every issue; his use of the term “tactic” is a disgraceful way of blurring and/or falsifying positions on which firm stands should be taken. The Saudis want more support for the Egyptian military than even the US presently gives, so that Kerry’s stop in Cairo sanctioned a military coup that deserves condemnation. The Saudis want Iran to be weakened if not destroyed, and again Kerry sits on the fence and placates Riyadh, instead of seeking peace in the region. Too, there is Assad in Syria, and no question, this is obviously a Sunni-Shiite conflict the US should not, by seeking regime change, do Saudi bidding.
Stepping back, one sees US foreign policy literally panting for war–following Saudi and Israeli lead in the Middle East, pressing for the containment and isolation of China with Obama’s Pacific-first strategy and the “pivot’ of military forces (chiefly naval power) to that region, a bristling at Putin and Russia for stopping the bombing of Syria, drone assassinations in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia–where will it end? Clearly, Kerry is the right man for the job, eager to please Obama (as Blair was, Bush), showing virtually no conviction and willing to do POTUS’s bidding.II “There’s no poetry in them [the person and her vision]“: half-right, for there’s no prose either, from the standpoint of the democratization of American society. Hillary is to all intents a man in woman’s clothing, given her unabashed militarism (e.g., calling for an Afghan surge greater than the Pentagon asked), her hard-nosed foreign policy (including sanctioning drone assassination), in sum, her total commitment to US global hegemony, which is a plus, as Democrats see it, and a moral aberration for the few of us who view America as on the path to a totalitarian society.
II Hillary on the NSA and massive surveillance? Not a word. Hillary on eavesdropping on world leaders (occurring on her watch as well as before and later)? Silent as the tomb. Hillary on CIA-JSOC paramilitary operations intended for regime change and/or destroying socialist governments? Ditto.
Those who dwell on the beauties of a women president represent the reification of GENDER as a desideratum in its own right, regardless of policy. Fine, we’ll see Hillary (and Schumer) with the same Wall Street banking crowd, the same gospel of deregulation Bill worshiped before to bring on the financialization of capitalism, to the detriment of American working people as well as the integrity of the system itself.
I expect Hillary to receive the nomination in ’16, showing the Democratic party’s journey of moral bankruptcy since the days of FDR and the New Deal. Her liberalism is tarnished, unworthy the name.
Norman Pollack is the author of The Populist Response to Industrial America (Harvard) and The Just Polity (Illinois), The Humane Economy, The Just Polity, ed. The Populist Mind, and co-ed. with Frank Freidel, Builders of American Institutions. Guggenheim Fellow. Prof. Emeritus, History, Michigan State. He is currently writing The Fascistization of America: Liberalism, Militarism, Capitalism. E-mail: email@example.com.