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Imperial Death Spiral

Photo by katesheets | CC BY 2.0

In the midst of what is quickly becoming a political crisis, or rather a crisis for the political class, the stated and implied solution coming from establishment sources is to return to the pre-Trump era as if (1) this were possible and (2) there were no viable explanations for why the establishment candidates were rejected in the first place. The proximate cause of his election was the failure of the political class to adequately address the latest in a series of economic crises caused by collusion between it and a predatory and totalizing economic order*.

The greater cause is the nature of this economic order and the political economy it has crafted for the benefit of a small (and shrinking) plutocracy. In 1980 the (internal) working class was seeing its economic lot improve. This in the midst of what to the elites was crisis— falling profits and inflation that destroyed the value of loans on bank books. Since then there has been a singular direction toward greater economic extraction and concentration, privatization of the commons, more militarism, nuclear resurrection and seemingly unstoppable environmental degradation.

The distance between questions and answers presented itself in the streets of Charlottesville as newsreel footage recovered from a bygone era. By the standards of ordinary, everyday imperial carnage the skirmishes were benign, microscopic, not worthy of a page 80 mention by the news-aggregators of record. That they mattered to the people who were there is the point the powers-that-be have no interest in hearing and even less interest in addressing. Is it incidental that both the political establishment and White nationalists want restoration of unjust orders?

In 2016, the last full year of Barack Obama’s administration, a Black person was slain by the police every 1.2 days in America. These killings were uncorrelated with crime rates, making them political. Three times as many Blacks were killed as Whites (relative to population sizes), making them targeted. These were racially targeted killings of Black citizens by agents of the state who received near absolute immunity for carrying them out. And with three centuries of precedent behind them, they were business as usual in America.

This is neither to pin a political label on Mr. Obama nor is it to posit his place on some continuum of ‘better than’ and ‘worse than.’ It is to link the past to a present through the refusal to abandon state violence. The posture of self-defense held by the retrograde-right finds its mirror in Mr. Obama’s decision to ‘upgrade’ America’s nuclear weapons stockpile and promote ever more repressive economic arrangements (TPP) to preclude competitors in the race toward annihilation. As with the election of Donald Trump, these are symptoms of imperial decline, not causes.

The militarization of the police began in the late 1960s when the LAPD formed its SWAT ‘team’ to crush the Black Panthers. The ‘war on drugs’ was conceived by Richard Nixon to provide a pretext for crushing the counterculture and left-radicals. The Patriot Act was a neo-fascist wish list conceived years before 9/11 and passed under the pretext of fighting terrorism. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama claimed police-state powers for the presidency that contradicted the base premises of liberal democracy. Neo-fascism has been the implied direction of American political economy for some five decades now.

A question in need of consideration is: are the neo-Confederates, White nationalists and neo-Nazis now mimicking the German fascist marches they’ve seen in newsreel footage the source of this neo-fascism or are they something else? From slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, when has America ever not been, in the sense of racialized state-corporatism, a fascist state? And when the latest economic crisis struck around 2008, why was restoration of the ruling order, if not the circumstances being ruled, the only option considered?

With past the only prologue presently under general consideration (history will present its own answers), American slavery was first and foremost an economic institution. Unless one wishes to argue that its moral abomination was due to some characteristic peculiar to the slaves, it was because they were human. It is hardly incidental then that it is this very humanity that White Supremacy is used to deny. Within the larger scope of the concerns of empire, when was this humanity ever a consideration? Furthermore, in what way is the ethos that this implies viable?

Following the Civil War state repression was integrated with nominally ‘private’ enterprise under Jim Crow to recreate the economic taking of slavery without its newly untenable politics. Police conceived as slave patrols were made the front line in this system of ‘free’ slavery. The state institutions that served economic power by taking it from others came to define the expropriative nature of ‘freely-given’ labor. Otherwise, what ‘break’ from systemic expropriation ever made this labor freely-given?

Much later still Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan appealed to ‘law and order’ to reference a retrograde social order that (1) had never gone away and (2) relied on an implicit conception of White Supremacy that was dissociated from its economic origins. ‘Law’ meant targeted subjugation through racially repressive legislation, jurisprudence, policing and incarceration. ‘Order’ was tied to systematic economic taking through exploitation. Over time the political framing changed while the base goals remained largely untouched.

Picture: Bill Clinton at the Confederate war memorial at Stone Mountain, Georgia in 1992 to announce his ‘war on crime’ using neatly ordered Black prisoners as props. Stone Mountain is the home of the modern KKK and the memorial is a neo-Confederate icon.

When Bill Clinton first ran for President in 1992 he announced his ‘war on crime’ at the Confederate war memorial at Stone Mountain, Georgia (picture here and above). The modern KKK originated there. The war memorial is a neo-Confederate icon today as it was in 1992. Mr. Clinton can be seen standing in front of neatly ordered, mostly Black, prisoners. The program he was announcing later became the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. It is amongst the most racially repressive legislation passed since Jim Crow.

The neo-Confederates and White nationalists present at Charlottesville carried with them the ethos of White supremacy without the economic program that has sustained it from pre-modernity to the present. As of now they are but bit players, in material terms ‘extras.’ The fear that they will grow to be more ties to evidence circa 2008 to the present that the political class has no idea how resolve simmering political tensions. Conversely, Donald Trump is much more a typical plutocrat than at this point the political class would care to acknowledge. Lest this be a surprise, plutocrats rule plutocracies.

In a DemocracyNow! interview Antifa spokesperson Mark Bray argued the ‘rise of the thugs’ theory of the genesis of European fascism that posed the White nationalist contingents at Charlottesville as a similar threat. This in the context of three centuries of U.S. militarism, the largest carceral population in world history, a militarized and murderous domestic police force, an absence of a rule of law that applies to governing elites and an economic system premised on taking from those with the least to give for the benefit of those who already have it all.

The large proportion of the political class that has demonstrated over recent years that it loves political violence that now condemns it in Charlottesville should give pause. The White nationalists and neo-Nazis are a target— freedom from their violence is a human right, but they aren’t the target. When problems are systemic, the target for resolution is the system. Call it what you will: Western imperialism, racialized state-corporatism or capitalism, it links three centuries of economic exploitation to state repression and violence. To end this repression and violence, end the system that produces it.

* Donald Trump’s election was part a broad move across the developed West that brought right-wing candidates to power. This after liberal / neoliberal parties declined to address a series of economic calamities. Jeremy Corbyn’s ascendance in the U.K., the closest political corollary of the U.S., suggests that it was the exclusion of left wing candidates that kept them from being elected, and not voter preference for hard-right policies.

Furthermore, determining electoral intent from vote tallies assumes that not voting is a passive choice. Variable voting totals suggest otherwise, as do higher voter participation rates in other countries. Because of this, in statistical terms, analysis of vote tallies alone introduces selection bias.

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Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.

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