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From Surveillance to Assassination


Surveillance is the National-Security State in its normalized practice, one which systematically breaks down the personality structure of the individual through reduction to a mere datum to be manipulated and cowed into submission. Yesterday’s news: the new budget allocates one-half trillion dollars to the military (half of all discretionary spending); the reaction: welcome news to the “patriots,” indifference, the remainder. American society is sinking down into the normalization of militarism, maldistribution of wealth and power, cultural banality and mediocrity. Yet consumerism, for those who can afford it, rages on—as in the downsizing of luxury models (Detroit Auto Show) to entice the young. 500 horsepower, the bipartisan reduction of funding to regulate the derivatives market, all of one cloth: capitulation to a capitalistic Behemoth who chomps on the poor for breakfast, seeks out militaristic compatriots for lunch (on the Nile), pursues global hegemonic ambitions for dinner (pivot of assets to the Pacific in showdown with China, nuclear modernization, counterrevolutionary paramilitary operations—thank you CIA-JSOC). All in all, a good day’s work on behalf of ever-concentrating centers of power, the banner of liberalism floating in the breeze, formations in lockstep chanting “privatization or death.”

Capitalism wages war on the epistemological level as well as more conventional battlegrounds, in this case, ensuring the fragmentation of knowledge, observation, and reasoning, so that heinous crimes can become disconnected from the unified fabric of policy-reality. Obama justifies massive surveillance as necessary to protect the American Homeland, and because he is such a dedicated constitutionalist, he wants to establish precedents so that, down the road, later presidents will not abuse the public trust and cross the line to intrusive spying: a statesman guarding the Fort of Civil Liberties from potential abuses of lesser presidents to come. Implicitly, no, explicitly, America is in danger every minute of every hour from hostile terrorist attack. At least, this is the official line.

A somewhat different picture emerges, however, from the analysis of America’s globalization of power on the expansionist foundations of militarized capitalism, evident since the late-19th century policy of the Open Door and increasingly hardened into place as the military-factor becomes more prominent following World War II. Poor Britain, its out-of-date colonialism having given way to America’s own Non-Colonial Imperialism, in which there are no limits, so that the sun never sets on the American empire. Terrorism, in this light, emerges as the devilish ingratitude of those who resist Americanisms, ideological, political, economic, meanwhile displaying proper gratitude for the bestowed enlightenment.

Would there have been 9/11 if the US had not erected military bases, in the process shoring up ruling groups, in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East? Would there have been terrorism if the US had not made Central Asia a pawn in the Cold war against the Soviet Union? Would there have been terrorism if the US had not compiled a record of constant world intervention, and instead applauded anticolonial and democratic forces and/or governments, from Iran to Vietnam to Chile? We summoned by our actions the monster of our own creation, but a monster, unlike the US behemoth, which, in the absence of provocation, would have turned inward to resolve its problems through the peoples of its own lands.

America needs the threat of terrorism to keep our own people in line, something for which McCarthyism and the frenetic atmosphere of anticommunism had already paved the way with much success, as in the bipartisan consensus over war, intervention, corporate aggrandizement, deregulation, environmental destruction, and denial of an effective and comprehensive social safety net. Whether Democrats or Republicans are the more devoted servants of capitalism is an open question, rhetorical obfuscations notwithstanding. To claim a constructive role in limiting surveillance, as Obama’s DOJ speech is sure to do, beggars the imagination, for reducing women and children to blood spats in Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia, hardly comports with solicitous regard for the preservation of civil liberties at home. He can get away with it because Americans’ thirst for superiority in the world (and within the US, similar gradations based on class, wealth, and race)has the effect of viewing others as less than human, the domino-effect of diminishing respect as one descends the social scale (except that those in America further down the scale accept the stigmatization in exchange for participating in the joys of conquest, while the victims of American suzerainty—shame on them—tend to hold grudges, and even fight back.)

We are trained not to connect the dots. From surveillance to assassination is not even interrupted by a hiccup. Nor the two, from the largest military budget in peacetime history. Nor all three from contempt for the law itself, in providing for the protection of, and respect for, individual rights, and valuing social decency above mere capital accumulation. Sanctity of property trumps sanctity of human life—a half-trillion dollar wager, and still counting, that that relationship, if America has anything to do about it, will not change. Obama is in the precedent-setting business; contrary to The Times article, that he seeks to bind future administrations to a scrupulous regard for civil liberties in the face of a persisting Nameless Terror, he is doing the same with his drone-assassination policy, constantly adding names to the hit-list as a means of ensuring later presidents will continue the operation on terms and with “legal” rationales he has put in practice. Surveillance + assassination + extreme secrecy = fascism lite (for how long in that state before congealment sets in, is anybody’s guess).

My New York Times Comment on Peter Baker’s article therein, “Obama’s Path From Critic to Overseer of Spying,” follows (both Jan. 16):

Baker gives Obama the benefit of the dignity of office. Take off the gloves. Obama cannot be deemed a constitutional lawyer because of HLS classes or UofC teaching assignments. Nor is it useful to compare 2007 and today: Obama’s record of perfidy and intellectual gamesmanship–anything for personal advancement–should lead one to see, not a transition, because of the weightiness of office, but a consistent anti-civil libertarian posture from day one. How credit him with anything, when he presides over the hit list and personally authorizes targeted assassination? How accept the lame explanations of Rhodes and Axelrod, when the outcomes are so plain? Need we be reminded that this week the Pentagon budget exceeded a half-trillion dollars, more than half of discretionary spending? Obama is a cold-blooded pragmatist, playing up to the intelligence and military communities, while smiling to the public–a far more insidious menace to American freedom than anything for which Bush 2 can be held responsible. I expect more disclosure and investigative journalism from NYT and Baker, not the pro-administration fluff of this article.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism.  His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at

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