A rhetorical question conceived to initiate a line of reasoning is: did the Third Reich have political ‘centrists?’ This is neither to suggest any relation between American political centrists and Nazis or that the political decision making process is analogous. It is to ask the question: can any worldview that is less than the most extreme be considered centrist, the ‘relativist’ view, or is there non-contextual criteria, an ‘absolute’ view, that can be brought to bear?
For insight into the genesis of the question I take you back to 2003, before the American political leadership murdered a million or so innocent Iraqis, displaced several million more (Syria, anyone? Anyone?), re-vitalized a global array of torture camps and eventually created ISIS. The New York Times’ Bill Keller does the honors (top link), explaining contemporaneously how liberals were critical to selling the war. Here is Bill Clinton doing so. Here is a recap of Hillary’s role.
Further back in history, it was the American political ‘center’ that continued slaughtering innocents in Vietnam a full decade after one of its own (McNamara) concluded that the war was a lost cause. Liberals Bill Clinton and Barack Obama provided the socially benign gloss needed to the build-out of the American surveillance state. And in the realm of the economic, free-trade liberals have been the most effective proponents of neoliberalism under the delusion that a corporate-state amalgam would respond in the public interest during a crisis of capitalism.
Graph: it has been a rule of electoral politics since the term was conceived that you don’t impoverish a significant portion of the population, help your campaign contributors foreclose on their homes and keep your party in power. As Jeremy Corbyn just demonstrated in Britain, Donald Trump didn’t win the U.S. election, the Democrats lost it. Petulant dullard Trump was elected because the Democrats served a tiny minority of rich campaign contributors against the interests of their nominal political base. Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve.
There are two reasons for addressing this catastrophe-generating tendency now. The first is that the New York Times is calling the disenfranchised (by the DNC) supporters of old-school Democrat (and reliable guardian of empire) Bernie Sanders extreme while their own record of supporting genocidal clusterfucks (top link) has been depressingly consistent. The second is that centrist Democrats, the most likely beneficiaries of ‘the Resistance,’ never met a social catastrophe they didn’t love.
The value of the Times to the powers-that-be lies in its regurgitation of the conventional wisdom of Washington and Wall Street in the technocratic terms needed to convey social neutrality. This sleight-of-hand lends technocratic weight to an imperial worldview that reduces plunder and mass murder to business as usual. Bill and Hillary Clinton starved half a million Iraqi children to death. What twisted technocratic parsing could give a patina of legitimacy to such an act?
Students of history may recall that the Nuremberg Tribunal, assembled to prosecute top Nazis, considered war of aggression ‘the supreme international crime’ because of the chaos and misery that wars unleash. The American war against Iraq was most certainly a ‘war of aggression.’ And the value of international law is that just because a Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or George W. Bush decides that mass murder is legal doesn’t make it so.
International law (such as it is) is premised on the idea of absolute criteria for judging socially consequential actions versus the relative criteria of raw political power. The critique that Donald Trump is belligerent and autocratic is absolute in that the terms have determinate meaning, but selective application— where were the perp walks for the Iraq War and Wall Street malfeasance?, renders it relative. The unwillingness of Democrats to hold their own to account is not lost on the broader population.
So, was the political leadership that launched the U.S. war against Iraq centrist? How about the political leadership that conceived and went about building-out mass incarceration, militarization of the police, the surveillance state, the ‘unitary’ presidency and the mass deportation of immigrants? These are all bi-partisan ‘accomplishments’ that received the blessing of quasi-state organs like the New York Times and Washington Post. But how likely is it that they would have been put forward as centrist if the rich and powerful had been put at risk by them?
‘Graph: while Americans are heroically adept at internalizing systematic social repression, the facts of (1) having the largest relative and absolute carceral populations in world history and (2) their social-categorical composition being (a) the poor and near poor and (b) people of color, should give even bourgeois social-illiterates pause. Of note is that this system grew regardless of which political party occupied the White House from the mid-1970s until recently. Source: The Sentencing Project.
As such, and borrowing from Antonio Gramsci, ‘centrism’ is the social realm from which ‘legitimate’ social discourse is intended to proceed. (Enter class relations). It implies a series of moveable rationales that support ruling class interests. The rightward trajectory of the American political center has been put forward as an issue by issue compromise when the direction implies that specific interests are guiding it. And technocrats provide the patina of rationality needed to convert socially destructive policy choices like the Iraq War and neoliberalism into the centrist view.
Graph: Republican opposition to the ACA (Obamacare) was / is clever-lite in that they could have stood back and watched the program recede into oblivion. Under the ACA insurance companies switched from cherry-picking individuals to cherry-picking service regions. Profitable regions now overlap significantly with cities where hospitals are disappearing because the real estate they own has been made too valuable to use for quasi-public purposes. The graph illustrates the program’s effectiveness at paying health insurance executives exorbitant amounts of money. Source: fiercehealthcare.com
Appeals to the connotation of words (such as ‘centrism’) is a characteristic of propaganda operationalized by American Edward Bernays and co-opted by German Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. The term is meant to convey ‘moderate political views or policies.’ But as with the problem of averages in the social sciences, as political issues are aggregated fewer and fewer people remain at the political center. In this way the term is indeterminate, leaving the matter to whatever the powers-that-be and their functionaries say it is.
A question worth asking is why ‘centrist’ agents of the American corporate-state spent the last half-century building-out the technologies of social repression like militarization of the police, mass incarceration, the consolidation of political power under a ‘unitary’ presidency and the surveillance state if the intention were other than social repression? And while the overall effort has been bi-partisan, Democrats have been more adept at presenting these programs as socially benign.
When American history is brought back into the picture, the question becomes: on whom have these technologies been used and who has done the using? Militarization of the police began in 1967 when the Los Angeles police department formed its S.W.A.T (Special Weapons and Tactics) unit to arrest and / or murder Black Panthers. Mass incarceration began after Richard Nixon created the ‘war on drugs’ as a pretext for social repression against the anti-war left. No socially ‘neutral’ starting point for these technologies ever existed.
(The History Channel’s America’s War on Drugs does a decent job with some of the political issues raised in this piece. The piece was written before I was aware of the series. This link to The Sunshine Makers (trailer) had already been included (below) as a cultural reference).
It was through the creation of the technocratic frames of crime and punishment that these social technologies were plausibly sold (to those that found them plausible) as legitimate state practices. The totalizing logic of technocracy has it that if the method is socially neutral, so are the outcomes. Only in America— and only by a certain segment of the population, could murdering Black Panthers and systematically throwing Blacks and hippies in prison be considered ‘apolitical.’
It is less than accidental that the growth of the U.S. prison population (graph above) approximates the influence of neoliberalism in the reordering of government and corporate relations over the last half-century. Capitalism emerged from a colonial / imperial institutional framework. Hugely asymmetrical economic power was the starting position of U.S. capitalists in the 1970s when the convenient fiction of ‘free markets’ was put forward.
The relation between increased state repression and ascendant capitalism lies in power— political and economic, which is hidden behind the technocratic fantasy of a world where power doesn’t exist. The Los Angeles S.W.A.T. unit was formed after the Panthers became a political force. The ‘war on drugs’ was conceived and implemented after the counterculture-left became a political force. And the only real ‘success’ that can be claimed for either was / is to criminalize those with competing social visions.
It is through this hiddenness of politics that political discourse following the election of Donald Trump has proceeded. Mr. Trump’s immediate predecessor, Barack Obama, was able to enrich a tiny plutocratic elite (including Donald Trump) while immiserating (graph above) and trying to further immiserate (TPP, TTIP) most of the population under the technocratic ruse of unified economic interests. The perceived social neutrality of Mr. Obama’s policies came from his posture as a technocratically skilled ‘centrist.’
In his book The German Dictatorship Karl Bracher argues that it took the Nazis most of a generation to instantiate themselves into the political architecture of Germany before they could seize power. As such, the Nazi program had more in common with the corporatist-capitalist program put forward in the Powell Memorandum than with the sudden, ‘inexplicable’ rise of Adolf Hitler. If Herr Trump is (descriptively) a fascist, of what political persuasion are the technocrats who built-out the carceral state, militarized the police and created the surveillance state?
There is a difference between autocracy and fascism. The right-wing charge of ‘liberal fascism’ is a critique of technocracy that places it inside the state as the creation of restrictions on economic freedom (the freedom to loot and plunder). As such, ideological right-wingers fear / loathe technocrats because of their repressive role. The Marxist-Leninist critique is that the state exists to serve the interest of connected capitalists (a/k/a plutocrats). Herr Trump removed the technocrats and what remains, at least in intent, is a state that straightforwardly serves the interests of connected capitalists.
The supreme American technocrat was Robert McNamara, who both reduced American car fatalities through various safety-enhancing innovations like seat belts and oversaw the slaughter of 3,500,000+ (his count) overwhelmingly innocent human beings in Southeast Asia. Mr. McNamara was a pioneer in the use of statistical methods to hide American atrocities behind bland technocratic blather. Mr. McNamara’s term ‘kill ratio’ quantified the technocratic logic that if ‘we’ kill more of ‘them’ than they kill of us, ‘we’ win.
In an earlier moment of political clarity, it was Wall Street bankers who attempted the only widely publicized fascist coup in the U.S.. While this ties broadly to an international movement toward fascism in the 1930s, the proximate cause was anger at FDR’s (technocratic) restrictions on capitalism put in place in his effort to save it. Liberals apoplectic at Republican efforts to undo Dodd-Frank legislation (restricting Wall Street) need to ask the question of why, after 2006 – 2011, Wall Street still exists in a form that can kill the global economy. The answer: because Barack Obama saved it.
Centrism is related to technocracy through the mechanics of public persuasion in a technocratic society. Bill Keller and the New York Times are creators and compilers of rational reasons for carrying out socially destructive, stupid and occasionally insane policies. The Times’ charge of extremism attempts to place it at the center of reasoned public ‘debate’ when its actual history is of legitimating one social catastrophe after another. And Democrats with a smoother line of shit than Republicans makes them better fascists, not freedom fighters.