“How Come?” Questions

Photo by Elvert Barnes | CC BY 2.0

There are many reasons why American politics often seems more baffling than the politics of other so-called democracies.

These would include un- and anti-democratic provisions enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and statutory law, the duopoly party system that the Democratic and Republican Parties have concocted over the years, and spillovers from the economic into the political realm.

With increasing economic inequality and Supreme Court rulings that have turned “campaign contributions,” political corruption by another name, into Constitutionally protected free speech, the spillover problem has become especially egregious in recent years.

Add to that a powerful propaganda system — run mainly by private corporations – that dumbs down and degrades public discourse.

I don’t just mean Fox and Breitbart and others of their ilk.  Because of their hold over a sizeable portion of the population, they are a menace. On the merits, however, they are not worth being taken seriously; their “journalism” is beneath contempt.

The propaganda system I have in mind is the one led by ostensibly respectable purveyors of news and opinion — such as the two “liberal” cable networks, MSNBC and CNN, National Public Radio, The New York Times and TheWashington Post.

Their ability to shape public opinion is so powerful and their influence is so pervasive that the ridiculousness of much of what passes for gospel truth in the political arena is seldom even acknowledged.

One of the things they do, in order to obfuscate reality and denigrate the “bad guys” of the hour, is use key words in misleading and tendentious ways.

Loosen the wool that is so tightly pulled over peoples’ eyes, however, and “how come?” questions that, properly considered, lay bare what is going on come immediately to mind.

Conceptually rigorous, historically informed reflection is often indispensable for making sense of the political scene.   “How come?” questions are different.  Hidden in plain view, their answers are usually obvious as can be.

Here are two timely examples:

How come some countries have “regimes” while others have “governments”?  And how come we Americans are governed by “administrations”?

“Regime” can be, and often is, used to denote entire ensembles of social, political, and economic institutions.  “Governments,” then, would be components of regimes.

However, in our propaganda system, “regime” has sinister implications.  It is used to denote foreign governments that the American government holds in disfavor.

Bashar al-Assad heads a regime; Vladimir Putin does too.  He moved into “regime” territory by complicating American machinations in Ukraine.  Then his support for Assad got him ensconced there.

Needless to say, none of this would have played out in quite the way that it has had our military and our “defense” industries and those whose economic fortunes depend upon them not found themselves in need of a more robust and terrifying enemy than the ones available to them since the Cold War ended.

Before the Arab Spring in Syria turned into a civil war, Assad was a force for regional stability. Back then too, the Syrian government was more or less friendly to the United States, and vice versa.

That changed in the course of the shifting alliances that emerged as the Syrian civil war took shape.  Thus the Syrian government nowadays is the very model of a “regime,” a paradigm case. It is also, as everybody “knows,” a regime led by a vicious dictator who likes to kill his own people with poison gas.

Meanwhile, Benjamin Netanyahu, a man every bit as malevolent and depraved as Assad, heads a government, not a “regime,” notwithstanding the fact that, with the support of almost the entire Israeli political class and the acquiescence or worse of the four-fifths of the Israeli population that is ethnically Jewish, the Israel Defense Forces, “the most moral army in the world,” uses live ammunition to kill scores and maim hundreds of peaceful demonstrators on its border with Gaza. The propaganda system is powerful indeed.

The three mad bombers of Syria — Theresa May, Emmanuel Macron, and the supremely iniquitous Donald Trump, also head governments, not regimes, even though they, Trump especially, support Israeli shooters far more extensively than the Russians support Syrians accused of deploying poison gas.

When those three and others like them talk about “regime change” what they have in mind has little to do with regimes, strictly speaking, and everything to do with changing the governments of countries whose sovereignty they have violated or would like to violate.

In most instances, this would not even involve changing basic political institutions, much less the social or economic context in which they operate.  The regime changes bandied about in Washington and European capitals amount to little more than the replacement of insufficiently submissive leaders by more biddable ones.

Regime change in the narrow, propagandistic sense was seldom if ever an explicitly proclaimed objective of either side during the Cold War that ended a quarter century ago. Ironically, though, regime change in its theoretically sounder and more expansive sense actually was a goal of the contending parties.

The United States and its allies wanted to bring the Soviets, the Chinese and their “satellites” into the American fold – by installing or restoring capitalism and by transforming their institutional arrangements and political practices in ways that facilitate American domination.

The reality was different because the Soviet Union was never in any position to dominate more developed Western countries, but, at least in theory, the Soviet side sought world domination too; a point persistently drummed into Americans’ heads.

The Cold War that the West has been stirring up for the past several years is different.   It could hardly not be.  Such differences as there may be in the political economic systems of Russia and the United States are not worth fighting over; they are not what set the sides apart.

When they speak of “the Putin regime” in Western capitals and on Western media, the point is to deride the Russian government and its leader; not its economic system, which is, for all practical purposes, the same as the West’s.

And, self-righteous posturing aside, Western countries could care less about Russia’s institutions or their impact on the Russian people.  Their quarrel is with the Russian government or rather with the Russian president and the persons closest to him.

It is different with Syria and other less developed countries.  But ever since Bush-era neoconservatives led the United States and its “coalition partners” to disaster in Afghanistan and Iraq, nobody wants to take on what true regime change would entail; “nation building” is expensive and, worse still, bound to fail.

Therefore nowadays, “regime change” means nothing more extensive or radical than personnel changes in the upper echelons of the state and the economy.

And yet, media flunkies automatically use “regime” and “government” in the tendentious ways that their corporate bosses – and their bosses’ class brothers and sisters – favor.  Largely for this reason, the general public does so too.

Whatever else our propaganda system may be, it is frighteningly efficient at winning over “hearts and minds.”

There is an additional wrinkle as well.   Our media, and therefore nearly everyone influenced by them, call the American government, or at least the part of it where executive power resides, an “administration.”

This effectively takes real politics out of the discussion – not the electoral craziness corporate media obsess about, but genuine contestation over the distribution of benefits and burdens and over the course that state institutions ought to follow.

Ironically, there is a sense in which, in doing so, they are following a more worthy precedent.

In the Anti-Dühring (1877), Friedrich Engels famously contrasted “the governance of persons” with “the administration of things.”  His idea was that, after successful proletarian revolutions, as class conflicts are overcome in transitions from socialism to communism, the state, the nexus of institutional arrangements through which class conflicts are organized and managed for the benefit of ruling classes, withers away.

His reflections on these matters are part of a larger Marxist account of the structure and direction of human history.  Obviously, the American propaganda system has no interest in anything like that.  Otherwise, though, what Engels meant by “administration” is essentially what those who fashion and run our propaganda system have in mind.

Their idea, like his, is that with fundamental social divisions overcome, governance devolves into management; as what was once a politically contested set of institutions and policies that functioned to coordinate conflicting class interests (in accord with the interests of the economically dominant class), devolves into a technical problem of coordinating the various parts of a large organization whose basic goals are uncontested.

That governments only “administer” might seem an odd thing to claim in a political world as polarized as ours, but there is a certain, unintended, wisdom implicit in that understanding.  On matters of little consequence to economic elites, American politics is polarized as can be.   But the underlying social and political policies endorsed by both duopoly parties are essentially the same.

However paradoxical it might seem, our elections are therefore devoid of political dimensions, except at the margins or in relatively trivial respects.

How come the bad guys have oligarchs, while we have plutocrats, some of whom are, as Obama famously said, just “savvy businessmen”?

Like “regime,” “oligarch” is another good word that the propaganda system has appropriated and misused.

Since Aristotle, if not before, oligarchy designated forms of government in which “the few” rule.  The contrast was with democracy, literally the rule of the “demos” (in contrast to the rule of elites), but in practice the rule of “the many.” Oligarchs did not have to be rich; they were not, for example, in ancient Sparta, Aristotle’s paradigm case.

Strictly speaking, Russia is not an oligarchy any more than the United States is.  Neither is it a “dictatorship.”  It has a strong state, lorded over by an authoritarian leader with illiberal attitudes, but then, nowadays, the United States does too. The difference is just that Putin is better at it than Trump.

Like the United States, Russia has obscenely rich people who enjoy inordinate political influence.  Call them “plutocrats” on that account; “plutocracy” means the rule of the rich.   But, just as in the United States, Russian plutocrats do not run the state – not in theory, and not in practice either.  They are therefore not oligarchs in the strict sense.

It was not always so. In the Soviet system, the “commanding heights” of major social, political and economic institutions were effectively run by the Communist Party; and the Party itself was hierarchically structured to such a degree that it would not be far-fetched to hold that the definition of oligarchy, rule of the few, correctly applied.

Those days are over.  Today’s Russian “oligarchs” are just plutocrats who happen to be from Russia and other currently out of favor, former Soviet republics.

They differ from our plutocrats in at least one other key respect: for the most part they started out not as “kleptocrats.”  That descriptively apt term has no theoretical meaning, apart from what its etymology implies.  After the Fall of Communism, while reversion to a more primitive and irrational capitalist economic system was underway, thieves (of formerly public property) effectively ran the state.

With privatization proceeding at a feverish pace, leading figures from the old regime, seized opportunities to enrich themselves by taking over state assets.  To do this, they needed political help.  Throughout the Brezhnev era, that help was forthcoming; the level of corruption and venality was extreme.

But, again, the kleptocrats were, if anything, closer to being oligarchs under Communism than in the Wild West capitalism of the post-Communist era.

Indeed, it was only after Communism imploded, that they became truly rich. Under Communism, incumbents of top positions, members of the so-called nomenklatura, had greater access to goods and services and other amenities than average citizens.  But they were not rich by Western standards.  The capitalist world is full of people, far from the seats of power, richer than they.

Nevertheless, calling them “oligarchs” and using their wealth against them makes sense insofar as the idea is to use the very thought of their nefariousness to advance the interests of nefarious American plutocrats.

From time immemorial, “oligarchy” has contrasted with “democracy.”  The gap between the real world of Western democracy and the democracy of political philosophers is enormous, of course, but defenders of the status quo in “democratic” countries would be at a loss if they had to face the implications of this plain fact.

But they are not beyond using words, deliberately or not, to obfuscate the reality they refuse to confront; not beyond, for example, depicting Russian “oligarchs” as sworn enemies of American democracy – as if our homegrown plutocrats, with our bipartisan political class and their media flunkies in tow, weren’t already doing a far better job of undermining what little democracy we have than faraway Russians possibly could.

Meanwhile, giving “plutocrats” a pass or cutting them slack or even, like Obama, praising their business acumen whenever an appropriate situation arises, is as American as open carry laws and apple pie.

But for the deeply engrained inclination of distressingly many Americans to glorify individuals, no matter how loathsome, who succeed in business, the fact that our “populists” embrace Donald Trump and others like him would be inconceivable.

But embrace him, they do. Evidently, even wealth acquired by inheritance and augmented by shady business deals and by stiffing creditors, contractors and workers, is, as Trump’s hapless evangelical supporters might say, an outward sign of inward grace.

Even so, the fact that loyalty to Trump has survived more than fifteen months of Trump’s tenure in office seems almost preternaturally unfathomable.

Hypocrisy, ignorance, stupidity, and the echo chamber of rightwing pseudo-journalists and media pundits explain a lot.  No doubt, the understandable reluctance of the conman’s marks to face up to the plain fact that they have been snookered is a factor too.

But the main cause is that our “regime’s” propagandists ply their trade well.

However, their deceptions are easily defeated.  It is often enough just to throw off the blinders, face reality squarely, and use a little common sense.

It will then become obvious how strange much that we are made to take for granted is, as “how come?” questions tumble out, and the miasma that engulfs us lifts just a little.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).