Totalitarianism Goes Folksy

Obama in Europe for the G-8 meetings appears to have been found out as one contemptuous of civil liberties for starters, and for that reason, contemptuous as well of a whole range of democratic tenets, from elemental legal guarantees of doing justice, to seeking peaceful development and nonintervention in international politics and economics.  Surveillance is on everyone’s mind—except in America.  Ditto, Guantanamo; and for many, concerns about US national-security premises affecting confrontation with China and exacerbating tensions in the Middle East.  America comes to Europe as Leviathan somewhat crazed, fearful, consumed with suspicions about its own people.  Obama and Cameron are a delightful pair, joined at the hip by social philosophy (notably, a cavalier disregard of the poor, and high marks to capitalist upper groups) and geostrategic vision (global counterrevolution), but a relationship the former does not enjoy with other leaders at the summit.  Germany has been the target of NSA spying, as per the Snowden revelations, and there and elsewhere, invasions of privacy hardly betoken confidence in Obama’s integrity.

Hence, the public-relations offensive (aka, damage control) in America, where Obama, counting on his persuasive powers and the people’s false consciousness,  believes he can clamp down a police state—for how else describe the unprecedented surveillance at home to this degree?—which will be met by little or no resistance. In fact, his arrogance in this respect now shows more clearly.  On the Charlie Rose show (June 17), timed to coincide with his European trip, Obama presents a classic demagogic defense of his surveillance policies.  Language is revealing.  Think Willie Stark, modeled after Huey Long, in All the King’s Men, the bobbing and weaving, the guttural bragging, when you read the interview:  “Some people say, ‘Well, you know, Obama was this raving liberal before.  Now he’s, you know, Dick Cheney.’”  And he continues, “Dick Cheney sometimes says,‘ Yeah, you know, he took it all lock, stock and barrel.’  My concern has always been not that we shouldn’t do intelligence gathering to prevent terrorism, but rather, are we setting up a system of checks and balances?”

When a political leader refers to himself in the third person, run for the hills!  This remoteness from the self, as though an on-looker, signifies what some admirers call Obama’s “cool,” but which might better suggest the extreme depersonalization, of self and OTHERS, which allows him to order the targeted assassination of human beings, their vaporization, leaving a blood spat, with no charges brought against the person, sometimes even identity unknown, while, following the patriotic glow of Terror Tuesdays, the president can enjoy a good night’s sleep.  Depersonalization also provides the needed escape hatch from accountability and responsibility.  The glibness in setting up Cheney as a straw man, to thereby show his, Obama’s, own purported liberalism [I use the term in its popular guise, rather than its actual antiradical function and record], is a familiar high-school debating technique.  But it is his contention that surveillance is constitutionally acceptable in present circumstances–we can skip over whether or not it is mere “intelligence gathering,” a disarming euphemism, and effectively prevents terrorism—that defies belief and makes one want to cry out at the distortion.

The government has no system of checks and balances, and rather a self-constructed closed circle of legitimation and authorization.  The FISA court is not only a rubber stamp, as many observers have said, but also a microcosm of all that is rotten in the state of—Obamaland.  It is secret from start to finish, even as to its proceedings, basement jurisprudence unworthy of any sort of legal standing.  Nor do Obama’s claims of having consulted Congress on surveillance mean much, given that body’s supine nature—Sen. Feinstein’s Intelligence Committee  serves and protects the intelligence community—and the precondition of nondisclosure attached to the briefings.  But in a larger sense, “checks and balances” has been simply chucked out the window, from Obama’s own quite drastic increase of Executive Power, to a dysfunctional Congress anxious, on a bipartisan basis, to please capitalist and military upper groups (thus complementing the Executive branch, although with sufficient confusion as to how to advance capitalism and imperialism as to become bogged down), to a Supreme Court so unmindful of rule of law and civil liberties that in such matters as surveillance it hardly checks or balances anything.

Obama, as Peter Baker reported on the Rose interview in the New York Times, claimed that “he had made important changes from the policies of George W. Bush, including making sure that surveillance was approved by Congress and a secret foreign intelligence court.”  Congressional approval, to a picked handful, predisposed to accept, and muzzled to boot.  As for the foreign intelligence court, Baker himself fails to see the irony in his use of “secret” to describe it.  And finally, in the fashion of Willie Stark, who gives to his own leadership, as well as the totalitarian framework under construction, its endearing folksiness, Obama states:  “But I think it’s fair to say that there are going to be folks on the left—and what amuses me is now folks on the right who are fine when there’s a Republican president, but now, Obama’s coming in with the black helicopters.”  Third-person Obama to the rescue, the happy medium between left and right, just doing his job, selfless, indifferent to praise or blame:  “…these programs [i.e., surveillance]…have disrupted plots, not just here in the United States but overseas as well.”  Spying, like targeted assassination, has become the American way—they deserve being paired, as symptomatic of the desperation implicit in the subconscious acknowledgement of an erosion of military-ideological-economic power on the world stage.

Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University.

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