Big Brother Capitalism Strikes Back

Photo by SPACES Gallery | CC BY 2.0

Photo by SPACES Gallery | CC BY 2.0

In classic capitalist fantasy, the “private” marketplace is a land of liberty and the state is a dungeon of oppression.  Modern social democrats have tended to invert the formula, upholding the state as a force for social protection against the tyranny of the capitalist market.

The truth is more complex than either narrative allows. As Marxists and other leftists have long known, “free market” relations and the state combine to impose class oppression on the working-class majority under capitalism.  Both the market and the state are under the interrelated and overlapping, mutually reinforcing control of capital. This is especially true in the United States, where government’s social-democratic functions – and the popular movements that have historically fought to install those functions – are much weaker than they are than in other “developed” capitalist nations.

The common worker and citizen faces a double whammy under the U.S. profit system. She must rent out her critical life energy – her labor power – and subject herself to the despotic, exploitative (surplus value-extracting) direction of “free” market-ruling capital to obtain the means of exchange required to obtain basic life necessities sold on the market by capital. To make matters worse, she must contend with a government that functions not so much to protect her and the broader community from capital (including capital as employer) as to deepen capital’s political, social, and market power over and against her, other workers, and the common good.

Real-Time Worker Surveillance: A Private-Public Sector Collaboration

Look, for one small but important example, at a recent report on the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) “Rap Back” program.  As Ava Kofman reported on The Intercept three weeks ago, the program is “quietly transforming the way employers conduct background checks.”  It is moving this criminal justice vetting of wage earners “from a routine process that gave employers “a one-time ‘snapshot’ of their employee’s past criminal history” to “ongoing, real-time notifications and updates about their employees’ run-ins with law enforcement, including arrests at protests and charges that do not end up in convictions.” The transformation has been underway for some time at the state level, but the FBI program is taking things to a whole new level in terms of federal partnership and technical capacity:

“A majority of states already have their own databases that they use for background checks and have accessed in-state Rap Back programs since at least 2007; states and agencies now partnering with the federal government will be entering their data into the FBI’s Next Generation Identification database. The NGI database, widely considered to be the world’s largest biometric database, allows federal and state agencies to search more than 70 million civil fingerprints submitted for background checks alongside over 50 million prints submitted for criminal purposes.”

“In typical federal background checks, the FBI expunges or returns the fingerprints it collects. But for the Rap Back system, the FBI retains the prints it collects on behalf of companies and agencies so that it can notify employers about their employee’s future encounters with law enforcement. The FBI has the license to retain all submitted fingerprints indefinitely — even after notice of death. Employers are even offered the option to purchase lifetime subscriptions to the program for the cost of $13 per person. The decision to participate in Rap Back is at employers’ discretion. Employees have no choice in the matter.”

Free Speech Isn’t Free

So, say you are an environmentally environmentalist – worried, perhaps, about heavily state-subsidized carbon capitalism’s project of Greenhouse Gassing life on Earth to the death – who happens to work or wages or a salary (wages calculated per year) in one of the many U.S. banks and financial institutions that have invested in the eco-cidal (water-endangering ad planet-cooking) Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) [1] – the 1,172 mile “black snake” built to carry fracked oil from North Dakota Bakken to southern Illinois.  Your opposition to the dire environmental threats posed by DAPL spark you to join protest actions leading to your arrest. Or perhaps the same thing happens while you are protesting racist police violence or Washington’s drone-bombing of some Muslim country – or as you march for workers’ collective bargaining rights or a $15-an-hour minimum wage or as you act to protect “illegal” immigrants from detection, arrest, and deportation.

Whatever the cause that leads to your “encounter with law enforcement” while attempting to exert your Free Speech rights, the arrest is reported to your employer by the governmental Rap Back program.  The state has just helped the “free market” boss class identify you as a “troublemaker.”  The word comes down to your supervisor[s), leading to bad things for you, possibly your discharge.  Bear in mind that in the United States, where health insurance in largely employment-based, getting fired can very easily lead to the loss of medical coverage for you and perhaps your family.

Backgrounds checks and Rap Back aside, what does free speech really mean in a society where one places not only one’s job but also one’s health care and often one’s family’s health care at risk by saying or doing anything deemed controversial by one’s employer? The “free market” isn’t free.

Right Handed Big Government

Of course, one way that the U.S. state functions on behalf of capitalists as employers and against workers is by NOT offering certain programs. Workers would be less afraid to fight their bosses and to speak out and resist oppression within and beyond the workplace if they knew the government had their back with universal national health insurance and a strong social welfare safety net.  U.S. Big Business has long opposed social democratic governance in no small part because it knows that such state policy would enhance the workplace, marketplace, and political power of the working-class majority.  Naturally enough, it has waged a long war against government rules that used to support workers right to organize unions and bargain collectively. Darkly enough, workers unifying to enhance their collective marketplace bargaining power does not qualify as legitimate “free market” behavior as far as capital is concerned.

Beneath all its “free market” talk, capital isn’t opposed to “big government” as such.  It’s opposed to what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “the left hand of the state” – the parts of the public sector that serve the social and democratic needs of the non-affluent majority. It celebrates and otherwise advances the “right hand of the state”: the portions of government that serve the opulent minority by distributing wealth and power upward, disciplining workers and the poor, and attacking those perceived as nefariously resisting capitalist and imperial order at home and abroad.

Under the rule of the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and militarism, government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. It is well fed when it comes to paying for an ever more militarized police state along with a vast global empire, a globally and historically unmatched mass incarceration system (a curious Orwellian attainment in the self-declared “land of liberty”), and the endless protection and subsidization of the wealthy corporate and financial Few (the Pentagon System being one of many key “public”/ state-capitalist subsidies). Government is starved and weak when it comes to meeting basic social and environmental needs, which is no small part of why “the world’s richest nation,” the United States, ranks abysmally low among “advanced” nations when it comes to things like infant mortality, life span, literacy, numeracy, poverty, infrastructure, drug addiction, violence, environmental protection. and social mobility.

And the weaker the left hand of the state becomes, the strong the right hand grows.  The less it reigns through the velvet, social-welfarist glove of amelioration and protection, the more capital must rule with the iron fist of repression.

Big Brother Bobby

I wonder what Bobby Kauffman thinks about all this. Kauffman is a Republican legislator in the Iowa State House. He is also the son of current Iowa Republican Party chair Jeff Kauffman. He calls himself a libertarian and a Teddy Roosevelt fan, seeing no contradiction in that self-description [2]. He’s the guy who won right-wing applause by telling college students to “suck it up, buttercup” when they hit the streets in response to the trauma they felt over the “democratic election” of the nation’s first fascist president.  Buttercup Bobby is sponsoring a draft state bill that would specify enhanced criminal penalties for organizers of highway protests like the one that shut-down the eastbound side of Interstate 80 (I-80) north of Iowa City on the Friday after the orange-haired beast triumphed over horrible Hillary “basket of deplorables” Clinton. When I told Kauffman that the I-80 stoppage (which he accuses of “falsely imprisoning my constituents”) had no organizers that I knew of, that it seemed to have just happened (I was there), he claimed to know otherwise from a report from the Iowa City Police Department’s (ICPD “social media manager.”  The ICPD had infiltrated Facebook to purportedly identify specific “organizers” – Kauffman’s definition remains unclear (and could extend so far as to include someone mouthing off about blocking the Interstate again on Facebook) – of the highway stoppage.

How a self-described “libertarian” can in good conscience wield information (real or fake) from a police state Big Brother accessing people’s “social media” accounts in defense of a measure designed to target protest organizers for criminal prosecution is an instructive seeming paradox.  The inconsistency makes sense, however, when you factor in Bourdieu’s distinction and remember that “free market” capitalists aren’t really opposed to “big government.”  They’re only really opposed to left-handed, social-democratic government.   The real debate isn’t about big government as such.  It’s about big government in state-capitalist service to reigning wealth and power structures versus big government in service to the working-class majority and the common good.


[1] The U.S. investors include Citibank $522 million[m]), Wells Fargo ($467m), SunTrust ($435m), Citizens Bank ($72.5 million(m)), Commerce Bank ($72.5m), US Bank ($275m), PNC Bank ($270m), JP Morgan Chase ($312.5m), Bank of America ($350.6m), Goldman Sachs ($244m), Morgan Stanley ($225m), Community Trust ($30m), and HSBC Bank ($189m). See “Who’s Banking on the Dakota Access Pipeline?” Food and Water Watch, September 9, 2016.

[2] See Martin J. Sklar, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 334-363, for a brilliant and thorough discussion of Teddy Roosevelt’s significantly statist and executive branch-focused variant of Progr

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Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)


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