Every day brings a new outrage. Obama in the saddle is like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse rolled into one. Several articles and editorials, which appeared over the last week or so in the New York Times, called attention indirectly (regrettably, The Times, in its editorial policy, never indicts Obama, however decisive and damaging its investigative reporting) to separate yet interrelated problems, their connective tissue the administration’s leaning in a totalitarian direction. Even then, the coverage still only scratches the surface of his perfidious record and nature.
First, the sequence of policies, e.g., health care in its evolution and present form, raises the prospect, even in the near-term, of the privatization of Social Security, an outcome already stamped heavily across the face of Obamacare and in the ambient surroundings of deregulation, inherited from Clinton, Rubin, Summers–the wrecking team via financial-and-banking libertarianism of the America and also global economy. Paul Krugman, administration-cloned, nevertheless finds some danger in the possible (and all but presumed) assault on the system. Privatization challenges the entire social safety net; corporate welfare trumps public welfare, from health insurers to pharmaceuticals, to the widening of class divisions, as rewards flow upward, poverty downward. Here, my New York Times Comment (Nov. 22) on Krugman’s article, “Social Security Expansion,” his criticism a step in the right direction, yet within the narrowed tunnel-vision of administration liberalism:
Social security expansion raises the ideological challenge and/or fear that respect for working people and esp. the poor is a sign of weakness. Capitalism must be muscular, hardened, militarized, with outsize rewards to the titans of banking and defense, for whom we owe our safety and security in a world of impending chaos and terrorism.
In sum, social security = communistic subversion. As a nation we have forfeited any claim or pretense to democracy and moral worth. Instead, intervention, POTUS-authorized assassination, an over-the-top defense budget, not only for its own sake, but deliberately as a way of negating the social safety net.
As advanced nations go, America is a sick joke–not only social security but also health care, and beyond that core of civilized moral obligation, paralysis on climate change, a crumbling infrastructure, a vibrant educational system, honest banking regulation, the list goes on. Social security is a litmus test for a society’s responsive to its people. And now the people themselves are complicit in their own degradation–all to what end? More Stealth bomber flyovers at football games, more swelling with pride at the slaughter of innocents abroad, more surveillance at home, eavesdropping abroad. No sir-ee, the US will remain on top of the world pile, even if that means going to the mat with China, as in Obama’s Pacific-first strategy, military build-up in the Pacific, and, for good measure, the Trans-Pacific Partnership absent China.
Nothing stops Obama. His secretive trade negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership is one example of his leadership, in procedure, a disdain, bordering on contempt, for transparency in government, and in content, a trade architecture ensuring one-sided US advantages which at the same time prevent the use of antitrust proceedings at home (as violations of the agreement itself). Business and banking never had a better friend, hegemony being advanced under the banner of liberalism. But I cite this only by way of suggesting a consistent pattern of leadership, here, presently in the news, concerning the Afghan negotiations, which would leave in place a US military presence until 2024. Can Karzai, himself hardly the model of democratic statesman, hold off the Obama war machine, for even he sees the injustice and blowback possibilities of allowing US troops and private contractors immunity from criminal prosecution for crimes committed in his country against his people. The Times, Nov. 29, had an op-ed article by two Brookings “experts” on how ungrateful Karzai is for US intervention; meanwhile, Karzai, to his credit, is digging in his heels on a number of abusive American practices, from night-time forcible entry into private homes to drone attacks which have killed civilians, including, at this writing, one child. These practices provide an excellent illustration of Obama’s disregard of civil liberties and rule of law.
My NYT Comment (Nov. 22) for Roger Cohen’s article, “Leadership Not Like Earlier Times,” follows:
Eloquent–and timely. When Cohen speaks of “managed commodities,” surely one thinks of Obama, “a tiptoeing president,” who lacks all moral courage, esp. with respect to Afghanistan. US troops through 2024? A cynical, nihilistic nightmare!
Obama would never apologize for US intervention and enormous human casualties in that country, an intervention w/o justification by any standard. Nor would he accept a status of forces agreement in which US personnel would be held responsible in local courts for crimes committed by them. As for night home invasion, ditto. POTUS personally selects targets and authorizes their assassination. America is hitting rock-bottom in its commission of war crimes, while the public either apathetically or with resounding cheers looks on.
Karzai is undoubtedly corrupt, but at least he has the gumption to stand up, even if only for the moment, to US power maneuvers. Again, 2024: what a disgrace.
Privatization, secretiveness, next, the international posture of toughness: Here we see a seeming break in US global militarization, specifically, the Geneva negotiations with Iran leading to an interim agreement centered on controlling nuclear enrichment levels and otherwise halting steps which might lead to the creation of a bomb. No writer likes to backtrack and admit to overstatement. But events take precedence over analysis, when modification of the latter demands.
Prior to, say, November 21, one finds—and I stand by this, correct to that point–a sanctions-regime, its bearing on the success of Iranian negotiations over the nuclear-power and-enrichment issues, in which the US, with the support, willing and otherwise, of “friends and allies” to isolate Iran and cripple its economy, is operating on several levels. It seeks to stabilize power-relations in the Middle East in a way that checks the democratizing potential of the Arab Spring; the heavy-handed treatment of Iran has the effect indirectly of buttressing the military rule in Egypt. By demonstrating the iron fist, it serves also to pacify mass yearnings elsewhere, i.e., Palestinians. Meanwhile, verbal differences over Iranian policy notwithstanding, the US continues to have Israel’s back in all ways, thus encouraging its siege-mentality and superiority complex in the region. Even with the newly-reached interim agreement, and despite PM Netanyahu’s dire warnings and threats (Israel still reserves to itself the right to take action, i.e., bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, going it alone if necessary), the foregoing holds—keeping Israel’s back, as well as tacit approval of the Egyptian Generals and disapproval of the democratizing potential of the Arab Spring.
What also has not changed, as I wrote pre-interim settlement, is that, agreement or not, America has a larger geostrategic position which goes beyond Iran per se, whatever that outcome might be, i.e., Iran as enemy, the pretext for a tough sanctions regime, or Iran as accommodated within the regional context, and a partial relaxation of sanctions. For the US covets a still more pronounced sphere of influence in the Middle East (here, oil is too obvious an explanation, although just as obviously it is a matter of high priority) in order to continue the wider encirclement of China, at play already in the Pacific-first strategy and Trans-Pacific Partnership. Iran may not have the power to be a spoiler of this geopolitical-military paradigm, but, coming into its own, it would not kneel at Leviathan’s feet. Like Cuba, which also has to contend with a sanctions-regime, Iran sticks in America’s craw precisely because it poses an ideological challenge to US hegemony—the ideology of standing up straight and not flinching.
Yet, now with the interim agreement, the US has skillfully neutralized, or is in the process of doing so, Iran’s role as impediment to its global aspirations vis-à-vis China, and at the same time, by reaching a temporary accord with Iran, making possible more direct American regional penetration so that the Middle East becomes a base of operations in confronting China west to east. In reality, US hostility to Iran hasn’t changed overnight. The leopard cannot change its spots. Obama’s vaunted turn to diplomacy as a cornerstone of American foreign policy is belied by US actions in general, neither drone assassinations nor paramilitary operations for regime change being exemplars of diplomacy. (In Geneva, Ms. Ashton, rather than Kerry, appears to have been the successful negotiator, with the announcement of an agreement initially coming from the EU.)
It is instructive to see my initial response to the agreement before it had been finalized, then three days later, the fuller elaboration of its significance for the region and the larger picture. Implicitly, the world-situation did not suddenly brighten because of it. First then, my New York Times Comment (Nov. 23) to David Sanger and Judi Rudoren’s article, “A Gamble in Iran Nuclear Talks: Easing Sanctions,” which takes seriously the criticisms of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and members of Congress that Obama is appeasing Iran (to me absurd, because, like the case of Afghanistan, the US adopts an all-or-nothing position, warnings within the handshakes) follows:
Incredibly cold-blooded logic (?) on the critics’ part. Sanctions are international blackmail, warfare under the guise of legality, and by rights should be condemned. What gives the US legitimacy to freeze assets, subject people to hardship, stunt economic growth? The Obama-Kerry position is highly punitive, yet the critics to their Right threaten still more–a race to the moral bottom!
Given Obama’s track record on intervention, assassination, huge military outlays, I doubt whether negotiations will reach agreement, Kerry always ready with new conditions to sabotage an accord. America has already harmed its international standing with eavesdropping on world leaders, and Iran will be another step in causing friction, here in the G5+1. The US under Obama is desperate to maintain its position of global hegemony, using sanctions in one place, paramilitary operations in another, drone strikes in a third.
The natural corollary to getting away with sanctions, etc., abroad, is massive surveillance at home, an absolute disregard of civil liberties. Totalitarianism is no stranger to America currently, yes, under the banner of liberalism. I’m glad FDR isn’t around to see the devolution of American democracy. Iraq, Afghanistan, is Iran next?
Next, my Comment to Roger Cohen’s article (Nov. 26), “Israel’s Iran Dilemma,” which, without referring to Obama’s additional pressure placed on China, serves to clarify the stabilizing-moderating aspects of the Iranian partial rapprochement on the Middle East itself:
Bravo Roger, a much-needed assessment. Iran beckons the future, Israel is mired in the past. W/o quite saying it, his portrayal of Israel implies a political will only satisfied with domination, Iran and the Palestinians intertwined in an Israeli mindset rigidly determined to be on top, i.e., militaristic, authoritarian–a DISGRACE to the liberal/progressive Judaism of my youth. Wrapping itself in the mantle of the Jewish State, it vitiates the teachings of Torah, taking on aspects of the totalitarian regimes which murdered the Six Million in the Holocaust.
Netanyahu preens, a little Napoleon, willing to court unmitigated disaster just to show how tough he is. He verily speaks for the nation, given the lack of fundamental protest in Israel. And now one fully expects AIPAC to swing into action, poisoning the wells of diplomacy in order to vindicate Israel’s regional power-politics.
The surprise here is Obama and Kerry, neither one having established a previous record favoring diplomacy over war. My hunch is, the US position has more to it than meets the eye: a realistic framework of regional accommodation in the Middle East, in order then to turn full attention to the Far East. Yes, the pivot, the Pacific-first strategy–clear the decks in order to confront China. A massive deployment of forces already, a China-bashing psychology so that America can retain–amid its declining political-economic structure–unilateral global superpower status. Obama is still Obama.
The fourth piece in this jigsaw puzzle mapping an emerging totalitarian landscape is surveillance, in the news now because the ACLU has announced a court challenge to USG policy on this practice (belatedly, I suggest, given the use of the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers and DOJ’s briefs suspending the habeas corpus rights of detainees, these for starters in the Obama-Holder disregard for civil liberties and encouragement of the intelligence community’s means of evasion, as in Manning’s solitary confinement, which may not be waterboarding but illustrates the urge to punish). Perhaps the ACLU has not dallied in taking action, although most liberal/progressive groups still give Obama a free pass, because it took the Snowden revelations to bring out the scope and depth of surveillance. Now, no excuse for action, and I fear the ACLU case is not sufficiently comprehensive to show the danger to America of domestic spying, itself prima facie totalitarian—beyond the wildest dreams of McCarthyism, and even now, documents released that NSA has strategies for gaining still greater powers. If Obama were accountable for nothing else, this alone should be enough to hound him from office. Yet surveillance goes hand-in-hand with the rest because revealing hostility to human dignity in its living, meaningful proportions.
Surveillance strips the individual of privacy, that which allows his/her autonomous growth, the erection of walls which keep at bay the systemic manipulation of character, the assault of consumerism, and the propaganda of an instilled patriotism, all of which engender false consciousness and the militarization of societal values. One could not have privatization of the public sphere—and get away with it, secretive decision-making and court decisions, and thus, the disconnection of government and the people—and get away with it, and an international posture of aggressive financial and market penetration, combined with intervention, regime change, assassination—and get away with it, if it were not for a people cowed into submission through the display of State power, the drum beat of intervention, the sense of defeat in proposing, let alone realizing, alternative pathways to political-social development.
Surveillance is a late-starter, to the structural fragmentation of the person, but more than icing on the cake it is crucial at this stage, the ratifying condition for sustaining systemic obedience—where every thought is potentially capable of being monitored. Government reduces to its most egregious functions. More power to the ACLU; it will need it, in working through a judicial system which has closed ranks around Executive fiat, Congressional accommodation to the primacy of business and the military, and its own vanguard-role in securing the foundations of capitalism against threats, mostly imaginary, to its existence. Its toleration of surveillance confirms its retrograde status and significance. My New York Times Comment (Nov. 23) to its editorial, “Surveillance Goes on Trial,” follows:
First, if USG were democratic (massive surveillance argues it is not) it would award Snowden the Medal of Freedom. He is the conscience of the nation Obama wants to silence, expunge the revelations, and have business as usual, i.e., militarization of the American polity, power concentrated on maintaining global hegemony, domestic psychological repression (via the atmosphere and culture of spying) to hide daily commission of war crimes (e.g., drone-strike assassinations), all to what end?
ACLU is a late starter. Evidences of a totalitarian historical progression, under the cover of counterterrorism, abound, from McCarthyism, when anticommunism became ingrained in the American psyche, to today, when perceived threats to Exceptionalism seemingly justify widespread intervention, military budgets choking off the social safety net, license for universal eavesdropping of world leaders, in sum, rampant amoral cynical official behavior flagrantly in defiance of the Constitution.
Yet, better late than never, though one suspects ACLU’s legal analysis will avoid the realities of power. Sweeps, metadata, secret judicial (?) rulings of the FISA Court, an obvious pattern of deceit and illegality, to be sure, but what of the vicious circle whereby Congress authorizes violative practices and both POTUS and NSA (the two inextricable) plead their legitimacy citing the legislation? Only a total cleaning of the Augean stables (which will never happen) will do, Obama on down.
As the fifth piece in the jigsaw puzzle mapping an emerging totalitarian landscape, most conspicuous, and ultimately related to privatization, we see the mechanical breakdown of the health-care plan, a headline-grabber largely for all of the wrong reasons—the haste involved in its presentation etc. etc., but not the substantive criticism of its provisions. I consider this separately from the others because in its own way the problems involved with the website illustrate how government abdicates all semblance of social-moral obligation to its citizenry, fobbing off a plan that, contrary to its Right-wing critics, insulates capitalism from the rational implementation of a health-insurance regimen conceived as the fundamental right to care of ALL in society. Obama is playing with us; conserving the privilege of insurers and pharmaceutical companies, subsisting at the public’s expense, simultaneously eliminating the democratization of medicine in all its manifestations, primary research to preventative programs, indicates the general pattern of betrayal and abuse, in which government is turned against the people rather than made to serve them.
In that light, computer glitches, poor design, the selection of incompetent or irresponsible contractors, is incidental—and to be expected. Where profit rules supreme, accountability flies out the window. Let Obamacare go forward, followed by a dismantlement of the social safety net, so that American health care comes to approximate Third World conditions, and then perhaps—just barely perhaps—the people will begin to listen, think for themselves, demand, and act on the demand, of a health-care system not politicized nor poisoned by capitalistic assumptions of profit. If that happens with health care, it could have a falling-domino effect (what is most feared and the reason for such fierce resistance to change) on other institutions-for-profit, on, indeed, capitalism as such. My New York Times Comment (Nov. 23) to Eric Lipton, Ian Austen, and Sharon LaFraniere’s article, “Tension and Flaws Before Health Care Website Crash,” which is an excellent summary of dealings with private contractors during the run-up to the program’s introduction, follows:
“…and here are all the options.” No, Obama, not all the options. You strangled both single-payer and the public option day one, no guts to take either of them to the people. This breakdown is a blessing: a rotten system of health insurance, vast profits to the health insurance industry, and the entering wedge to PRIVATIZATION for Social Security and Medicare itself. Your intention all along. Your signature measure? Fine. I would have nominated drone assassinations for that honor, but this will do–not the manifest incompetence (and deceit in covering it up) but the blind favoring of the Vested Interests over the American public.
Health care is sacrificed (along with much else) on the altar of market fundamentalism, itself symptomatic of the wider deregulation of the US economy driving USG on your watch–open door to wealth concentration, bankers’ criminal practices, destruction of the social safety net, all as prerequisite for the forcible insistence on unilateral global leadership in a world structure no longer susceptible to US guidance (i.e., dominance). Future history texts will see this chapter as the Era of Counterrevolution, both at home, wiping out the New Deal, and abroad, using counterterrorism as an ideological tactic to forestall US capitalism’s decline as its manufacturing base erodes, its financial system creates assorted bubbles and malfunctions, and the people suffer increasing privations.
Five seemingly unrelated aspects of current administration policy may be thought of, instead, as forming a unitary construct held together, integrated, actualized in ongoing practice, with the promise in future of maintaining the same lines of continuity, of a National-Security State enveloping and enveloped by an advanced stage of capitalism, brittle, ideologically rigid, for that reason fighting more tenaciously for its place in the sun than ever as it faces a world of multiple power centers no longer accepting US unilateral dominance.
For the sake of capitalist hegemony, its own, not that of the EU, Latin America, and the Far East, the US willingly sacrifices its own people in the working class and a silently emerging underclass as well to the needs of the political economy of extreme and concentrated wealth. If that means the outsourcing of its manufacturing capability, so be it. If that means, deregulation of the banking system, as the engine of economic growth, so be it. If that means, a fascistic-inclined political order leading to a regimentation of consciousness, so be it. These are not idle changes, psychotic visions of the financial-military elites; they are working their way through the historical process, even as I write. Presently, attention is drawn to foreign policy, first, Iran, and at this very moment, China’s air defense zone (vide, my CounterPunch article, “Diplomacy via B52s,” Nov. 29-Dec. 1), but I suspect it is domestic society, less sensational, which is the locus of totalitarian trends, and which makes possible the international push for hegemony, hence not to be overlooked. Here, then, are my two further New York Times Comments (both Nov. 29), which amplify earlier themes: one, concerning Krugman’s article, “Obamacare’s Secret Success,” a numerical sleight-of-hand because he claims health-cost savings of the plan without considering what could have been achieved under alternatives Obama swept aside, the single-payer system and the public option; two, concerning the NYT editorial, “Government in Slow Motion,” a standard criticism of Republican standpattism (correct as far as it goes), but which, also as standard liberal, even progressive, procedure, gives Obama a free pass and ignores the profoundly bipartisan composition of basic policy:
I Health costs appear to be under control within the existing framework, allowing Prof. Krugman the Panglossian view of the best of all possible worlds. BUT, what if health costs could be judged by a different standard, the one POTUS destroyed before even trying for its achievement–the single-payer system, or even the public option?
Rather than focus on Republican obstruction, why not admit Obama’s own shortcomings, really the betrayal or abandonment of principle associated with the ’08 campaign. America’s health is being depressed, weakened, on the altar of a bipartisan societal disease–privatization. Obama, more sophisticated than most Republicans, is doing their work for them, in the form of a permeating deregulation creating differentiations across the board, from income and power to genuine health care.
To focus on gains within a privatized system of health insurance–the laughing stock of the advanced-industrial world–is, witting or not, to shill for the insurers and pharmaceutical giants. I expect from Prof. Krugman a more critical analysis, not because I raise an ideological standard of Left, Center, or Right, but because a precise, carefully researched dissection of Obamacare measured against the realistic appraisal of alternative systems that Obama has ruled out from day one, would reveal how little savings, and at what cost to patients’ health, has been effected.
II The Times persists in focusing on Republican obstruction, rather than bipartisan consensus on the most egregious govt. policies. If it worried less about the “Pentagon’s readiness,” and the fate of the “defense authorization bill,” and questioned instead both extravagant military budgets and Obama’s foreign policy, together yielding not simply militarism per se but a fundamental drain on the nation’s finances, it could then approach budget issues with greater clarity and, yes, moral authority.
The cancer gnawing at America’s budgetary problems is obviously that combination of military spending and and the policy of global intervention. Why not ask, how much could be saved by abandoning drone assassination? paramilitary operations of CIA and JSOC geared to regime change and/or facilitating market penetration? giant subsidies to favored corporations? modernization of the nuclear stockpile? Etc.
Democrats and Republicans alike constitute a unified war party. Ignore that, as The Times has, and budget difficulties will remain for the foreseeable future.
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.