Put your hand on my head, baby;
Do I have a temperature?
I see people who ought to know better
Standing around like furniture.
There’s a wall between you
And what you want — you got to leap it.
Tonight you got the power to take it;
Tomorrow you won’t have the power to keep it.
— Bob Dylan
Tomorrow is here. The game is over. The crisis has passed — and the patient is dead. Whatever dream you had about what America is, it isn’t that anymore. It’s gone. And not just in some abstract sense, some metaphorical or mythological sense, but down in the nitty-gritty, in the concrete realities of institutional structures and legal frameworks, of policy and process, even down to the physical nature of the landscape and the way that people live.
The Republic you wanted — and at one time might have had the power to take back — is finished. You no longer have the power to keep it; it’s not there. It was kidnapped in December 2000, raped by the primed and ready exploiters of 9/11, whored by the war pimps of the 2003 aggression, gut-knifed by the corrupters of the 2004 vote, and raped again by its “rescuers” after the 2006 election. Beaten, abused, diseased and abandoned, it finally died. We are living in its grave.
The annus horribilis of 2007 has turned out to be a year of triumph for the Bush Faction — the hit men who delivered the coup de grâce to the long-moribund Republic. Bush was written off as a lame duck after the Democrat’s November 2006 election “triumph” (in fact, the narrowest of victories eked out despite an orgy of cheating and fixing by the losers), and the subsequent salvo of Establishment consensus from the Iraq Study Group, advocating a de-escalation of the war in Iraq. Then came a series of scandals, investigations, high-profile resignations, even the criminal conviction of a top White House official. But despite all this — and abysmal poll ratings as well — over the past eight months Bush and his coupsters have seen every single element of their violent tyranny confirmed, countenanced and extended.
The war which we were told the Democrats and ISG consensus would end or wind down has of course been escalated to its greatest level yet — more troops, more airstrikes, more mercenaries, more Iraqi captives swelling the mammoth prison camps of the occupying power, more instability destroying the very fabric of Iraqi society. The patently illegal surveillance programs of the authoritarian regime have now been codified into law by the Democratic Congress, which has also let stand the evisceration of habeas corpus in the Military Commissions Act, and a raft of other liberty-stripping laws, rules, regulations and executive orders. Bush’s self-proclaimed arbitrary power to seize American citizens (and others) without charge and hold them indefinitely — even kill them — has likewise been unchallenged by the legislators. Bush has brazenly defied Congressional subpoenas — and even arbitrarily stripped the Justice Department of the power to enforce them — to no other reaction than a stern promise from Democratic leaders to “look further into this matter.” His spokesmen — and his “signing statements” — now openly proclaim his utter disdain for representative government, and assert at every turn his sovereign right to “interpret” — or ignore — legislation as he wishes. He retains the right to “interpret” just which interrogation techniques are classified as torture and which are not, while his concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay and his secret CIA prisons — where those “strenuous” techniques are practiced — remain open. His increasingly brazen drive to war with Iran has already been endorsed unanimously by the Senate and overwhelmingly by the House, both of which have embraced the specious casus belli concocted by the Bush Regime. And to come full circle, Democratic leaders like Hillary Clinton and Carl Levin are now praising the “military success” of the Iraq escalation — despite the evident failure of its stated goals by every single measure, including troop deaths, civilian deaths, security, infrastructure, political cohesion and regional stability. This emerging “bipartisan consensus” on the military situation in Iraq (or rather, this utter fantasy concealing a rapidly deteriorating reality) makes it certain that the September “progress report” will be greeted as a justification for continuing the “surge” in one form or another.
It is, by any measure, a remarkable achievement, one of the greatest political feats ever. Despite Bush’s standing as one of the most despised presidents in American history, despite a Congress in control of the opposition party, despite a solid majority opposed to his policies and his war, despite an Administration riddled with scandal and crime, despite the glaring rot in the nation’s infrastructure and the callous abandonment of one of the nation’s major cities to natural disaster and crony greed — despite all of this, and much more that would have brought down or mortally wounded any government in a democratic country, the Bush Administration is now in a far stronger position than it was a year ago.
How can this be? The answer is simple: the United States is no longer a democratic country, or even a degraded semblance of one.
It is well-nigh impossible to imagine a force in American public life today rising up to thwart the Administration’s will on any element of its militarist and corporatist agenda, including the arbitrary launch of an attack on Iran. What’s more, even if some institution had the will — and made the effort — to balk Bush, it wouldn’t matter. As the New York Times noted a couple of weeks ago:
… Bush administration officials have already signaled that, in their view, the president retains his constitutional authority to do whatever it takes to protect the country, regardless of any action Congress takes. At a tense meeting last week with lawyers from a range of private groups active in the wiretapping issue, senior Justice Department officials refused to commit the administration to adhering to the limits laid out in the new legislation and left open the possibility that the president could once again use what they have said in other instances is his constitutional authority to act outside the regulations set by Congress.
At the meeting, Bruce Fein, a Justice Department lawyer in the Reagan administration, along with other critics of the legislation, pressed Justice Department officials repeatedly for an assurance that the administration considered itself bound by the restrictions imposed by Congress. The Justice Department, led by Ken Wainstein, the assistant attorney general for national security, refused to do so, according to three participants in the meeting. That stance angered Mr. Fein and others. It sent the message, Mr. Fein said in an interview, that the new legislation, though it is already broadly worded, “is just advisory. The president can still do whatever he wants to do. They have not changed their position that the president’s Article II powers trump any ability by Congress to regulate the collection of foreign intelligence.”
Thus the Administration’s own spokesmen are now saying openly, in plain English, what they once only insinuated beneath layers of legal jargon: that the president of the United States does not have to obey the law of the land. He does not have to obey acts passed by Congress. He is free to act arbitrarily, to do anything whatsoever that he claims is necessary to “defend national security,” in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. There is literally nothing anyone can do–not Congress, not the courts–to stop him.
That is Bush’s claim — and it has been accepted. The American Establishment has surrendered to an authoritarian takeover of the American state. If this was not the case, then Bush and Cheney would have been impeached long ago (or least months ago) for their treason against the Constitution, their coup d’etat against the Republic. At the very least, they would have been mocked, scorned, censured and shunned for their ludicrous and dangerous pretensions to royal power. All manner of institutional, legal and political fetters would have been put upon them, as happened in the last days of Richard Nixon’s presidency.
Instead, Bush’s power has only grown with each new outrageous claim of unchallengeable presidential authority. It is too little understood how vital — and how fatal — Congress’ acquiescence in all of this has been. By continuing to treat the Bush Administration as a legitimate government, to carry on with business as usual instead of initiating impeachments or refusing to cooperate with a gang of usurpers, Congress instead confirms the New Order day after day. Some Democrats may grumble, whine or bluster — but they DO nothing, and their very participation in the sinister farce ensures its continuance.
Again, look at the facts, the reality: Bush wants Congressional approval of his illegal surveillance; he gets it. Bush wants to launch spy satellites against the American people; he does it. Bush wants concentration camps and secret prisons with torture; he’s got them. Bush wants to escalate a ruinous, murderous, unpopular war; he does it. He wants to declare people “enemy combatants” and imprison them indefinitely; he does it. Bush’s spokesmen openly claim that the laws passed by the people’s representatives are “just advisory” and “the president can still do whatever he wants to do,” and there is no outcry, no action, no defense of the Republic against this overthrow of the Constitution.
Who could look at this reality and declare that the United States is still a republic, in any genuine form? Who could see this and deny that the nation is now an authoritarian state under an “elected” dictator?
Those who insist on seeing the current situation as “politics as usual” (even if an extreme version of it) will point to peripheral elements that still retain some of the flavor of the old order: such as the Justice Department scandal, with its forced resignations and Congressional probes, or the occasional criminal trial of Bush Regime minions like Scooter Libby. Some will say such things are proof that we don’t really live under tyranny, that deep down, the “system works.”
But all of this is indeed “politics as usual” — the kind of politics that occurs under every system of rule. Even the Caesars were subject to such pressures, forced to remove (and sometimes execute) officials who had become too controversial due to scandal, crime, corruption or factional opposition, or even unpopularity with “the rabble.” Sometimes the Caesars themselves were removed for such causes — but the tyrannical system went on. Likewise, the kings and queens of England in their autocratic heyday were forced to give up ministers — even court favorites — due to similar pressures. And so too the Russian czars, the Chinese emperors, the Persian monarchs, the Muslim Caliphs, the Egyptian pharaohs, etc. Even Hitler was sometimes thwarted or hampered in his polices by factional strife or public displeasure. “Politics” does not disappear in undemocratic regimes. It is a function of human relations, and carries on irregardless of the political system imposed on a society.
Yet the belief persists that if there are not tanks in the streets or leather-jacketed commissars breaking down doors, then Americans are still living in a free country. I wrote about this situation almost six years ago — six years ago:
It won’t come with jackboots and book burnings, with mass rallies and fevered harangues. It won’t come with “black helicopters” or tanks on the street. It won’t come like a storm–but like a break in the weather, that sudden change of season you might feel when the wind shifts on an October evening: everything is the same, but everything has changed. Something has gone, departed from the world, and a new reality has taken its place.
As in Rome, all the old forms will still be there: legislatures, elections, campaigns–plenty of bread and circuses for the folks. But the “consent of the governed” will no longer apply; actual control of the state will have passed to a small group of nobles who rule largely for the benefit of their wealthy peers and corporate patrons.
To be sure, there will be factional conflicts among this elite, and a degree of free debate will be permitted, within limits; but no one outside the privileged circle will be allowed to govern or influence state policy. Dissidents will be marginalized–usually by “the people” themselves. Deprived of historical knowledge by an impoverished educational system designed to produce complacent consumers, not thoughtful citizens, and left ignorant of current events by a media devoted solely to profit, many will internalize the force-fed values of the ruling elite, and act accordingly. There will be little need for overt methods of control.
The rulers will often act in secret; for reasons of “national security,” the people will not be permitted to know what goes on in their name. Actions once unthinkable will be accepted as routine: government by executive fiat, the murder of “enemies” selected by the leader, undeclared war, torture, mass detentions without charge, the looting of the national treasury, the creation of huge new “security structures” targeted at the populace. In time, all this will come to seem “normal,” as the chill of autumn feels normal when summer is gone.”
This was written less than two months after 9/11. I was no prophet, no shaman; I had no inside knowledge or special expertise. I was just an ordinary American citizen reading news reports, articles, essays and books easily available to the general public. But even then it was crystal clear what was happening, and where it would lead if left unchecked. As we now know, it was not only left unchecked, it was exacerbated and accelerated and countenanced at every turn, by virtually every element and institution in American public life.
“How does it become a man to behave toward this American government to-day? I answer that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.”
Now from all this, what follows?
The time has passed for ordinary political opposition, “within the system.” The system itself has been perverted and converted into something else; it is now impossible to “work within the system” in the old understanding of that term, because that old system is gone. To work within the current system is to collaborate with evil, to give it legitimacy.
Thoreau’s answer should be taken up by every person in public life, beginning with the Senators and Representatives in Congress, and radiating outward to all other elected officials in the 50 states, and to civil servants and other government employees, law enforcement agencies, judges, universities, contractors, banks, and on and on, throughout the vast, intricate web that binds the lives of so many people directly to the federal government. There should be non-compliance, non-recognition of this illegitimate authority, disassociation from taking part in its workings.
But we must also recognize that the kind of civil disobedience that Thoreau preached–and practiced–is immensely more difficult today, because the power of the state is so much greater, far more pervasive, more invasiveand much more implacable, more inhuman. No one would have dared put Thoreau in “indefinite detention” without charges, or torture him, or delegate some underling in intelligence apparatus (which didn’t exist then) to kill him as a “suspected terrorist.” Of course there were many egregious suspensions of Constitutional liberties and draconian measures during the Civil War; but these occasioned fierce fights in Congress, investigations, lawsuits, and outraged protests on the streets–the worst, by far, in American history, dwarfing the urban riots and war protests of the Sixties. But only the most ignorant fool–or devious liar–could compare these short-lived, ad hoc, inconsistently applied, frequently reversed and much-disputed depredations, carried out in the midst of a massive insurrection by fully-fledged armies on American soil, with today’s thorough-going, systematic creation of an authoritarian state, on the basis of a zealous ideology of an unrestricted “unitary executive,” operating in a nebulous, self-declared “state of war” that we are told will last for generations.
Neither Thoreau–nor any Northern opponent of the Civil War–confronted anything like this. (In fact, neither did the insurrectionists of the South, who were treated as lawful prisoners-of-war when captured–or often simply allowed to return to their homes on parole, in exchange for a simple statement that they would fight no more. No Southerner was ever subjected to indefinite detention, none were tortured, none were liquidated by secret agents.) The technology available to the government today amplifies the scope of repression immeasurably, both in the pinpoint, surreptitious targeting of individuals and in larger-scale operations.
In a land crawling with armed–and armored–SWAT teams, with operatives from innumerable federal agencies packing heat and happy to use it, a land where more than 2 million people languish in prison (many of them captives of an endless “war on drugs” that has done nothing to curb substance abuse but has greatly augmented the power of the state and the criminal gangs whose laundered money enriches Establishment elites), a land where almost every transaction is wired up to some national grid, where national ID cards are now being imposed–a land where you literally cannot exist without placing your liberty, your privacy, your very life at the mercy of a government apparatus besotted with violence, coercion and intrusion, there is no place left for the kind of action that Thoreau advocated. His way–and that of Gandhi and King, who took so much from him–envisions a state opponent which one could hope to shame into honorable action by the superior moral force of principled civil disobedience. But the very hallmark of the present regime is its shamelessness, its utter lack of any sense of honor or principle, its bestial addiction to raw power.
It is pointless–and counterproductive–to simply throw yourself under the wheels of such a monstrous machine in futile spasms of rage and despair. The machine doesn’t care. It will gladly chew up your life and move on. For the action of the ordinary individual to have an effect, it must be amplified by a larger social movement. And it is difficult to imagine such a movement arising in America today, in a society atomized by the engines of profiteering, its communities gutted or abandoned by elites seeking greener pastures–and cheaper labor–elsewhere, its citizens isolated from one another, locked in their own bubbles of electronic diversion, and their own struggles to keep their jobs (unprotected by unions, subject to the arbitrary whim of local bosses, or faceless corporate masters, or predatory hedge funds, etc.), hang on to their health insurance (if they’ve got it), and stay out of the hell created by the bipartisan Bankruptcy Bill for the benefit of the credit card companies.
And despite the deep unpopularity of the regime, there is still a widespread reluctance to recognize its true nature, and what it will require to restore our constitutional republic. And truth to tell, there are a great many people uninterested in doing so. As long as the diversions keep pouring through the latest gadgetry, the monthly paycheck manages to cover the bills, and their own bodies are not subjected to the tyrant’s evil, many people are happy to accept the authoritarian system. (This is not unique to Americans, of course; it is a constant in human history.) But even where there is an interest in discerning the reality of our times, and a yearning for change, again there is no broader movement to leverage an individual’s dissent into a form large enough to thwart the tyrannical machine. And there is no American Sakharov on the horizon, someone to arise from the very center of the machine to denounce its workings and call for genuine liberty, genuine democracy, genuine economic and social justice.
So whatever we can do, we must do it ourselves. If we have no power or influence, if we cannot take large actions, then we must take small ones. Every word or action raised against the overthrow of the Republic will find an echo somewhere, from one person to another to another to the next — each isolated, individual voice slowly finding its way into a swelling chorus of dissent.
It might be too late. It might not work. But failure–and much more horror — is guaranteed if we don’t even try.
As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote–in a context that is growing less dissimilar all the time: — it is impossible that evil should not come into the world; but take care that it does not enter through you.
“What is the price-current of an honest man and patriot today? They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret.” Thoreau.
CHRIS FLOYD is an American journalist and frequent contributor to CounterPunch. He is the author of the book Empire Burlesque: High Crimes and Low Comedy in the Bush Imperium. He can be reached through his webistie: www.chris-floyd.com.