Moral Values and Volunatry Servitude in Bush’s America


The years of George W. Bush’s sour misrule have been disastrous for many of his staunchest supporters. The Heartland folk have seen their jobs taken, liberties curtailed, communities withered, states bankrupted, prices hiked, schools neglected, pensions gutted, air poisoned, water tainted, and their children killed and maimed in an unjust war for profit that’s made the world more dangerous. Yet still they swear allegiance to a leader whose every action ­ as opposed to the honeyed hokum of his speeches ­ expresses nothing but vicious contempt for those he governs.

It is, by any measure, an extraordinary situation. How can we account for it? One answer ­ offered up ad nauseam by Bush’s cadre of media toadies ­ is that the rock-ribbed American yeomanry placed their dedication to “moral values” above crass economic interests. This display of transcendent idealism has excited admiration even amongst the defeated Democrats, whose “centrist” apparatchiks and commentators openly long for some of that red-state moral mojo.

There’s just one thing wrong with this ubiquitous piece of conventional wisdom: it’s a steaming crock of Crawford cowflop. The truth is that the number of voters in 2004 citing “moral values” as their priority in selecting a candidate ­ 22 percent ­ actually declined by more than 13 percent from 2000, as Frank Rich, among others, reports. In fact, the “values” vote was down almost 20 percent from the 1996 campaign, which returned the notoriously amoral Bill Clinton to office with a bigger winning margin than the tiny mandate Bush managed to muster, by hook and crook, this year.

Of course, the phrase “moral values” is just another example of the Idiotspeak used by journalists, pollsters, advertisers and political hacks to debase the language and reduce reality to a few malleable chunks of, well, Crawford cowflop. In the degraded, aggressively ignorant context of the last election, there were apparently no moral or ethical concerns whatsoever attached to such issues as war, economic justice, capital punishment, national security, corporate crime, stewardship of the planet, upholding the Constitution or caring for the sick, elderly and poor.

No, in the idiom of Idiotspeak, “moral values” refers to one thing only: sex ­ abortion, homosexuality, nudity. And as we all know, sex sells. It moves some $10 billion in porn and paraphernalia in the godly United States each year; and it pumps untold billions into the secretive coffers of “religious” foundations and rightwing “non-profits” devoted to manufacturing remunerative outrage in defense of “the family.” But the fact that a shrinking sliver of the electorate still gets all wiggly at the thought of body parts and bedroom hydraulics hardly accounts for the cognitive dissonance in American society today.

Yet if the flop-addled punditry can provide no answers, where can we turn? Why, to 16th century France, where else? There we find Etienne de la Boétie ­ best known as the bosom friend of the great essayist, Montaigne ­ explaining how an entire society can be dragooned into “voluntary servitude” by a ruthless elite, through an iron chain of clientage: big cheeses dispensing patronage to favored minions, who in turn act as patrons for their own protégés, and so on down the line.

La Boétie’s ideas are nimbly explicated by Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt in his recent book, Hamlet in Purgatory. Greenblatt, writing before the Bush Regime reared its gorgon head over the land, gives us a remarkably prescient reading of the coming empire’s entrails:

“It may at first seem difficult to understand why so many people would willingly abandon their innate freedoms, but in fact the process [outlined by la Boétie] is quite simple. A tiny group chooses, for strategic purposes, to declare allegiance to a single person. The qualities of that person ­ who may, for all anyone knows, be a dolt or a scoundrel ­ are not particularly relevant; what matters is his symbolic position at the apex of the system. Nor does it greatly matter if the members of the inner circle have any serious regard for the person to whom they declare their allegiance; what matters is that their immediate dependents [clients] feel similarly bound to them, and through them, bound to the person at the pinnacle. Each of those dependents in turn has his dependents, and before long tens of thousands of people are locked into a system that is exploiting rather than protecting or serving them.”

This type of clientage machine has now overspread American society like kudzu, choking off the natural growth of civic life and blocking out the light of truth. There are too many powerful people making too much money off a system of corporate rapine and military aggression to allow any reality or humanity into the equation. To keep the patronage flowing ­ from the White House table right down to the convenience store cleaner dependent on his boss making money from the workers at a local weapons plant ­ millions must pay ritual obeisance to the dolt at the apex.

Bush has refined this system by adding blood guilt to the mix; his supporters must believe in his righteousness and wisdom, or else they would have to admit their own complicity in mass murder based on deliberate deception. They would also have to acknowledge complicity in Bush’s personally-sanctioned apparatus of torture, exposed yet again last week, this time by the Red Cross.

No wonder they prefer voluntary servitude ­ and manufactured outrage, and Idiotspeak, and witless diversion ­ to the true moral values of responsibility and dissent. It would cost too much ­ in money, comfort and self-righteousness ­ to stand against the system. And so the machine will keep grinding on, fed by slaughter, greed and guilt.

CHRIS FLOYD is a columnist for The Moscow Times and a regular contributor to CounterPunch. His book, Empire Burlesque: The Secret History of the Bush Regime, is available at He can be contacted at

December 11 / 12, 2004

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Chris Floyd is a columnist for CounterPunch Magazine. His blog, Empire Burlesque, can be found at His twitter feed is @empireburlesque. His Instagram is