A Warning Likely to Be Unheeded: A Review of Norman Pollack’s Final Book

White America was never revolutionary. This fact was ensured when its founders based their idea of freedom on the sacredness of property ownership. The United States was born a capitalist nation and enshrined the rights of property in its constitution. Although it shouldn’t be necessary to state it here, that property included other human beings—slaves. Unlike its European forebears, a culture of opposition was never fostered amongst the ruling class in “white America” precisely because it was born capitalist, whereas the European nations birthed their capitalism in opposition to an existing feudalism which they overthrew. This, explains the late philosopher and teacher Norman Pollack, is an essential understanding required for modern Americans wishing to understand how and why we got to the point we are now in.

Where is that point? The title Pollack gave his final work reveals the answer: Capitalism, Hegemony and Violence in the Age of Drones. This relatively expansive work examines the nature of drone warfare; its brutality that is simultaneously anonymous and yet quite personal. Pollack draws on the thought of numerous thinkers; from Plato to Emerson, from Marx to Marcuse, from Locke to Hobbes. In this discussion, the nature of alienation in the capitalist society of the workplace and the city is examined. So are the results of an economy that emphasizes and needs competition instead of cooperation and domination over nature instead of symbiosis. The narrative examines US settler history and its metamorphosis into imperialism, tracing the philosophical line from one to the next while exploring the social psychology required for a society to engage in mass murder while convinced it is protecting human rights. This apparent contradiction is resolved, however, when Pollack reminds us of the Lockean definition that designates all human rights under capitalism to be dependent on and subordinate to property ownership.

It’s hard to believe that less than twenty years ago the public and the media were appalled when a government killed an enemy in broad daylight with a missile. Of course, the government referred to here is the one in Tel Aviv. In one of the more appalling attacks of the sort, Israeli forces murdered Ahmed Ismail Yassin and seven other bystanders on March 22, 2004, when an AH-64 Apache helicopter fired Hellfire missiles as he exited a mosque in the al-Sabra neighborhood of Gaza. At the time, the brazenness of the attack and the civilian deaths caused certain officials in the United States to question the morality of such an act. Now, after thousands of deaths via armed drone, hardly anyone blinks an eye. In part, argues Pollack, this apathetic attitude stems from the public nature of the man who sat down in the White House with his advisor every Tuesday and selected the human targets of his unmanned weaponry—Barack Obama.

The fact that assassination without trial and without warning became part of what constitutes acceptable tactics of warfare lends credence to a statement Pollack returns to on more than one occasion. The statement, made by the former head of the Israeli military’s international law division Daniel Reisner, espouses the idea that “international law progresses by violation.” In other words, the state wishing to redefine an element of law violates existing law repeatedly until new parameters are set. This repetition eventually makes what was once illegal under international law newly legal. Arguably, even if the US (or Israel) were brought up on war crimes charges because of their armed drone murders, Reisner’s statement assumes the argument that the numerous occasions of their use could ultimately make such strikes not illegal. As Pollack points out, this level of cynicism is the essence of what is wrong with the United States and its ruling elites. When that cynicism plays itself out in the deaths of thousands, the emptiness of an already impoverished American soul is brutally exposed. No matter how hard the media, ministers and politicians try to paint a different picture, they will ultimately fail. Donald Trump is the poster child of that emptiness, but Barack Obama is the flip side of that same empty vessel. He is portrayed in this text as the serial killer he turned out to be.

Capitalism, Hegemony and Violence in the Age of Drones is a commentary on twenty-first century USA. It is a study of a nation’s psychological denial and character debasement of itself. It is a denial enveloped in a cocoon of self-righteousness and disguised with the political and cultural equivalent of bouquets made of plastic flowers and stuck in flower pots filled with the excrement of politicians. Pollack’s erudite and exhaustive discussion of this United States as it heads into the second fifth of the twenty-first century at war with a substantial portion of the world and its own population is challenging, sobering and a warning that will most likely go unheeded.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com