Why “Snowden” is Important (or How Kafka Foresaw the Juggernaut State)

Oliver Stone’s film, with its underplayed, historically precise script and careful acting, makes its points through the adventures of two ostensibly ordinary Americans, a conservative-leaning geek and his progressive-inclined girlfriend. It is The System itself that supplies the heavies, because not even loyal Pentagon, CIA and State Department servants seem to be acting very much on their own. They do benefit enormously, demonstrated in the film by the lavish parties full of people far important than ourselves. Not, of course, to mention the huge salaries earned by sometime CIA specialists opting for military contract jobs, Edward Snowden included, until his rebellion.  For reasons that the filmgoer easily grasps, Snowden worries for his safety and even more for his partner’s, but all along seems indifferent to temptations of money, power and prestige that would presumably overwhelm nearly anyone actually entering the upper zones of  “security” operations.

Edward Snowden’s real life father attended the New York premiere of the film and told new friends that he marveled at Oliver Stone’s Showtime documentary series, The Untold History of the United States. One revelation leads to another, and that is why Stone, cutting through the propaganda web as he did so memorably in Born On the Fourth of July among other works, can move mountains or at least large blocs of popular opinion. He is giving the Bernie Generation in particular a way of seeing the world, and how the systems of control work as well or as badly under Democratic administrations as Republican. As his work explains, the benefits go, by the billions, to the insiders—a process including, we learned recently, some super-hefty contributions to a certain Democratic presidential campaign, whose candidate’s prospective Secretary of Defense was recently seen gathering funds in Virginia from the lobbyists of military contractors. One hand dirties another, if death-dealing money can ever be considered dirty in Washington.

There are many explanations for this phenomenon, and Stone (with his collaborator, historian Peter Kuznick) have done a fine job in Untold Story the book, along with the TV adaptation. But perhaps we can look usefully elsewhere, for a different kind of insight. Michael Lowy’s Frank Kafka, Subversive Dreamer (University of Michigan, 2016, translated by Inez Hedges) offers us precious insights into the doomed  Czech-Jewish author of The Trial and The Castle among other works. Lowy is a fabled European leftwing essayist and scholar on a wide variety of subjects including spiritually-flavored utopianism, a topic usually seen in a highly negative light within orthodox Marxist circles. Lowy is remarkably thorough here, analyzing critic after critic, concluding that Kafka “explodes the classical canon of literary realism,” rather in the manner of surrealists but without their optimism (p.102). Kafka anticipates the impossibly dark place that so much of society, with “security” bureaucrats at its very center, has now reached. I regret only the absence, in this book, of the interpretations that comic geniuses Robert Crumb and Peter Kuper made in their own explorations and adaptations of Kafka, insights as great in their way as any scholar could offer.

What would Kafka do with the Pentagon and CIA? It seems to me a splendid question, perfectly if not directly posed by Lowy. But if we search beyond mere facts to philosophy, we may already have the answer in a document too little studied for its revelatory value. Samantha Power’s Introduction to the 2004 edition of Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism offers an almost candid view of Kafkaesque world power systems, amazingly like Snowden’s boss who tells him that someday the oil and Arabs of the Middle East will be forgotten but the conflict of empires (the US versus Russia and China) will go on and on. The US is, for Power, naturally the great moral force in the world and entitled to do whatever it chooses to do. This diplomatic dignitary (destined, perhaps, to be Secretary of State under President Clinton) could not admit this directly, of course, but hints toward the conclusion throughout the essay.  She nevertheless insists, on the final page of the Introduction, that it is “only in the public sphere, through voting, voicing and mobilization, that our fates become our own.” (p.xxiv).

Not a single word of this sentence is true, and Samantha Power knows it. Keeping secrets, shaping the public sphere through half-truths and outright deception, is her prime business as US representative to the UN and was very much her business advising Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on what turned out, to take only one example, to be the Libyan debacle. Popular protests, that is public “voicing and mobilization” against the invasion-and-occupation programs of a Clinton presidency are unlikely to keep Power from saying and doing whatever the administration decides. By that time, the voting will be in the past, and also sufficiently distant in the future. To be sure, there will always be rationalizations for whatever the State Department and the military decide to do.  These rationalizations are eminently useful for creating—at least for the credulous–the impression that the decisions actually have popular support. Sadly, the credulous are certain to include the New York Times, the New Yorker, NPR, CNN, MSNBC and so on. This process of decision and explanation will be conducted, as now, through interlocking agencies and committees with deep continuities to the Bush as well as Obama administrations, all the while asserting the moral impossibility of the US doing otherwise.

If Power has her own hawkish way in 2017 and beyond, our “brave Saudi allies” may have US troops on the ground in Yemen, but even if not, they will certainly be aided in an accelerated extermination of civilians from the skies—all in the name of humanitarian rescue, the kind that Power has staked her (now tainted) reputation and career upon. But let’s take a step back and look at her inspiration a little closer.

The author of The Origins of Totalitarianism was, as everyone curious knows by now, heavily sponsored in the 1950s by institutional “pass throughs” of the Central Intelligence Agency. Seen in retrospect, it is Arendt’s insistence upon the absence of anything resembling “civilization” in such places as nineteenth century Black Africa that, in her totemic text, made possible or perhaps even inevitable gross human rights violations leading, albeit indirectly, to the Holocaust. Critics have observed that in her On Revolution, she famously contrasted the American Revolution (good) and the French Revolution (bad), but made no mention of these events’ counterpart, the Haitian Revolution. She was no history scholar, but for her, any black slave uprising would surely be an insurrection of absolute savages against their betters.

Here, we are close indeed to Samantha Power. Arendt’s philosophical interpretation of “totalitarianism,” an overview that crowded out presumed differences between Russia and German on opposing sides of the Second World War, made her an oversize figure in the intelligence-sponsored Congress for Cultural Freedom. She cleverly made fun of the pomposity of her intellectual compeers, but notoriously lost her sense of humor when she perceived the ills of “forced” school integration in the South, and then again, her literal bete noire, the rise of Black Studies courses in American universities of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In her view, these underlings were dragging down Euro-civilization and needed to be controlled, from Africa and the Middle East (where she also showed her iconoclastic side, acidly criticizing Israeli behavior) to Greater New York’s public schools and neighborhoods. But how things change! Cheerfully, in SNOWDEN, we see African-Americans and even Latinos joining in with the CIA fun, marking great strides for civilization.

For Power as for Arendt, there is no such thing as American imperialism and cannot be. The old, bad form of imperialism created by the European states for apparently domestic reasons, could not possibly apply to the Spanish American War, with the massed slaughter of Filipinos an anticipation of Vietnam, or further back, to the transformation of the moving frontier with the extermination of Native Americans as well as the enforced labor of Black people. The Monroe Doctrine and the persistent US invasions of any unruly Caribbean and Latin America naturally escaped her attention or would not be fitted within the European categories. Meanwhile, the spiritedness of young  (mostly white) college students of the 1960s attracted her while their antiwar assumptions left Arendt puzzled and unbelieving.  For Arendt as for such high-ranking Cold War liberals as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.,.  Vietnam was a mistake based on ignorance or even naivete, certainly not on the assumptions of empire. The hawkish writings of American liberals and conservatives alike, supporting the War, were surely regretted, but treated far less harshly than, say, the writings of Sartre or Fanon, on behalf of the world’s colonized victims. Rosa Luxemburg had proposed, a couple of generations earlier, that empire extended capitalism logically, in its own perverse way, and ruthlessly, exploiting the human and natural resources of the “backward” world more and more to the point of exhaustion. That analysis has always been too much for the defenders of American empire to bear.

It’s an old story by now. American “innocence” was the forgiving view of any and all mistakes, over at the Pentagon, the CIA and all the contractors, already playing a oversize role in public life, especially university education, by the time the students went into revolt. In the ensuing decades, assorted and purported human rights movements, funded through think tanks and centers shuffling board members back and forth from federal agencies feeding directly and indirectly off defense and intelligence agency contracts, anticipated Samantha Power’s world and arguably, made it possible. Ideological rationalizations for US behavior are the necessary business of the operation. Expect more, much more, from the Clinton Administration, as the bombs fall in greater numbers, the alliance with the Saudis tightens, and the troops march for any and all purposes designated as “security” or “humanitarian.” Power and Clinton, especially high on preventing imagined what they seem eager to describe as potential genocides–as in pre-attack Libya–will be saving this high rationale for the big, big projects.

Franz Kafka might have seen the deep logic of it all, as might his dreamy contemporary Walter Benjamin (posed brilliantly alongside each other, in Lowy’s treatment), if only they had lived on through the defeat of Nazism and the emergence of the Cold War world. That monstrous bureaucracy stretching from the Pentagon and the White House to CIA headquarters in Virginia, homes to megadeath planning and the soothing lies about American idealism in the world that we hear so regularly—read Kafka and wonder again at a long-ago writer’s keen perceptions.

SNOWDEN, the brave person as well as the film taking his name, offers a crucial understanding of the secrets behind the Curtain, arguably the most dangerous curtains in the history of the world. For that reason, and like CITIZEN FOUR, Stone’s film is itself a dangerous creation, dangerous, that is, to the powerful. Go and see it, tell you friends here and abroad, hope that it will attract the global audience and stir geeky idealists everywhere to make the nasty facts and connections known to the public, despite the obvious risk to themselves. Reader, while you are at it, find the Franz Kafka that Michael Lowy has identified, a great assist in unpuzzling the imperial puzzles of our time.##

A tip of the hat to Kathryn R. Gines, Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question (Indiana University Press, 2014).

Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.