Why Russiagate Still Matters

Photograph Source: Samuel Mann – CC BY 2.0

A thought experiment with a purpose is to ask: if a group of former Directors of the CIA, NSA and FBI put forward a story about a malevolent foreign power acting against the U.S. without providing evidence that their story is true, who would believe them? While this wasn’t precisely the setup for Russiagate, all of the former Directors came forward as former Directors of intelligence agencies, not as private citizens. And the information they presented was compiled as opposition research for a political campaign. It might have (did) provided a basis for further inquiry, but it wasn’t evidence as it was presented.

Oddly, ironically even, the part of the population that in earlier history would have taken former government officials at their word and been ready to fight, kill, or die to right this alleged wrong, was circumspect in the case of Russiagate. At the height of the Russiagate hysteria, as charges were flying that the ‘attack’ was worse than Pearl Harbor and 9/11 rolled into one, the class that had filled military recruiting stations following these earlier events was notably quiet. The faction that believed the charges, managerial class liberals (PMC), still substantially believes them despite none of the evidence put forward to support them holding up under examination.

This seeming role reversal of managerial class liberals being whipped into a nationalistic fervor while the rest of the country looked away was a long time coming. Trump loathing explains why liberals want Donald Trump gone from office, but not the nationalistic fervor or the studied disinterest of the rest of the country in the ‘attack’ by a foreign power. The receptivity, or lack thereof, of these political factions (classes) to official proclamations is the result of lived history. The Iraq War and the Great Recession created political divisions that are unlikely to be resolved without a redistribution of political and economic power downward.

Graph: As was much reported at the time, the Great Recession was orders of magnitude more economically destructive than prior post-WWII recessions. Both the severity and persistence of unemployment were far outside of the post-War experience. At the time of the 2016 election, long-term unemployment had still not returned to pre-recession levels. Its levels and impact were differentiated by class, with employment amongst the PMC, composed largely of liberal Democrats, quickly returning to pre-recession levels. while working class employment permanently disappeared or was turned into gig jobs. Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve.

Up through the U.S. war against Iraq, working class men joined the military and fought American wars while the rich and professional classes got educational deferments or a doctor’s note claiming one or another exemption-worthy malady to do the hard work of ‘changing the system from within.’ Even with the class-blind farce of a ‘volunteer’ military, there came a time around 2006 when the intersection of official lies and body bags accumulated to the point where a righteous rebellion against official power took hold amongst the ‘lesser’ classes. Barack Obama won election in 2008 based in part on his carefully worded rejection of wars of choice.

By the time the Great Recession struck in 2007, the U.S. war against Iraq was widely understood to be a strategic and military blunder, murderous almost beyond comprehension, and based on lies from American officials. And it was far from being resolved. For structural reasons including three-plus decades of planned deindustrialization, the systematic weakening of labor’s power and the social safety net, and the partitioning of the economy into financialized and not financialized sectors, the bailouts of Wall Street produced different outcomes by class, with the PMC seeing its fortunes quickly restored while the working class was left to languish.

Prior to this— in the early 1990s, the New Democrats had made a strategic decision to tie their lot to the ‘new economy’ of Wall Street. Recruiting suburban Republicans into the Democratic Party was old news by Bill Clinton’s second term. The PMC was made the ideological core of the Party. This helps explain the substantial overlap between the ‘liberal hawks’ who would some years later support George W. Bush’s war against Iraq and the Russiagate truthers who were tied through class interests to its orthodoxies.

To tie this together, the Americans who died, were permanently disabled or who lost family members and friends in the U.S. war against Iraq, also found themselves on the wrong side of the class war that began in the 1980s with deindustrialization. By the time of the Great Recession, working class labor was forced to contend with long-term unemployment (graph above) or with the perpetual insecurity of the gig economy. Contrariwise, those whose class position meant that they had ‘better things to do’ than to volunteer to serve in Iraq had their fortunes quickly restored in the Great Recession through government bailouts.

While Democrat versus Republican or left versus right are most often used to distinguish Russiagate proponents and believers from skeptics, it was the urban and suburban PMC that gets its news from the establishment press— the New York Times, Washington Post and NPR, that believed and supported the story. As it happens, the PMC and rich are the demographic that these news sources serve. Class connotes substantively different lived experience. The Russiagate true believers have benefitted from official connections and the skeptics and large majority of those disinterested in Russiagate haven’t.

Referred to, but not yet addressed, is the complete failure of the Russiagate evidence to match the DNC / establishment press / national security state storylines. From collusion between the Russian government and Donald Trump to emails leaked to, and then published by, Wikileaks to the Russian troll farm and its ties to the GRU (Russian intelligence), none of these theories have been supported by the evidence offered. And most of the political actors who spent years promoting them knew they weren’t true before Donald Trump even took office.

As one who spent years using scientific methods to conduct empirical research, 1) it is as easy to lie with evidence as without it and 2) every source for the Russiagate charges that I followed tied back to the DNC, the CIA or its NGO affiliates like the Atlantic Council. These are political actors, not disinterested parties. The method of reporting is to state charges in the headline, and then to correctly state that official sources claim that the headline charges are true in the body of the article. This leaves the impression that evidence supports the headline charges with no actual evidence having been presented. Deference to authority isn’t evidence.

This kind of journalism isn’t just poor reporting. It is either naively trusting of official sources or it is intended to deceive. Given how little follow-up has been done on the serial failures of the evidence, the most probable answer is that it is straight-up propaganda. But the conception of propaganda that the facts support requires something like a unified state interest, as well as an explanation of how and why the establishment press serves as a permanent conduit for official disinformation. Given that an elected President was the target of the Russiagate campaign, the unified state interest theory doesn’t work.

More broadly, the neoliberal project seems to have been modeled on the Marxist / Leninist conception of the state as existing to promote the interests of prominent capitalists. Beginning around the time of Bill Clinton’s election to the presidency, the privatization of government services led to the creation of a public-private amalgam composed of PMC workers who perform state functions like domestic spying for the CIA and the NSA. Russiagate certainly appears from its motives, sources, ‘facts’ and constituency, to have been carried out by functionaries in this public-private amalgam who saw it as their right to reverse the outcome of the 2016 election.

As I laid out in 2018 here, the role of the CIA in oil and gas geopolitics ties the motives for demonizing Russia to U.S. machinations in Ukraine and to weapons production and distribution as the business of U.S. based corporations. Further back, while the George W. Bush administration’s war against Iraq was a strategic, military, moral and humanitarian disaster, oligarchs and corporate executives made personal fortunes from it. This ‘model’ of the modern state acting on behalf of business interests ties all the way back to the alleged pre-capitalism of mercantilism.

The PMC is the service class of this state-capitalism, with corporate lawyers, tech workers, Wall Street traders and middle managers whose livelihoods and identities are tied to their class position through these jobs. Through the social partitions of class, they are free to have self-flattering politics that have no bearing on how their lives are lived. Identity politics like ‘ending racism’ have no bearing on who their co-workers are, who their neighbors are or who their children attend school with. Class determines these. This largely explains why beliefs, rather than acts, are the currency of this politics. Class is invisible for those who never encounter, or more precisely see, the economic and social consequences of capitalism on different classes.

This difference in lived experience explains why the PMC saw the Wall Street bailouts as both necessary and effective, while much of the rest of the country didn’t. Wall Street is the functional core of the PMC economy through the process of financialization. That the vast majority of the country works and lives far from this functional core makes it the center of the PMC economy, not of the broader economy. And the bailouts ‘worked’ in the sense that they quickly restored PMC jobs and bonuses. That they topped off four decades of declining fortunes for working class workers (graph above) was hidden behind economic aggregates.

The endless reading of the political tea leaves over Donald Trump’s electoral victory, over whether it was a dispossessed working class or Republican plutocrats that brought him to victory, is the analytical equivalent of the debate over the economic impact of the bailouts. Rich people vote, poor people don’t (graph below). Electoral politics is a struggle that takes place amongst the rich and the PMC. The visceral disdain the PMC has shown for the ‘little people’ throughout Russiagate is the product of four decades of class warfare launched from above, not the start of it.

Graph: The tendency to vote rises with family income. The well to do elected Donald Trump, as they do every president. As the machinations to make Joe Biden the Democrat’s candidate in 2020 suggest, the poor can vote for their choice to represent the interests of the rich, but not their own. This gives credence to Thomas Ferguson’s ‘investment theory’ of politics. The rich vote to protect their investment in political outcomes. Source: econofact.org.

Russiagate was and is defense of a class realm, of the power of the rich and the PMC to do as they please without the political chatter of the ‘little people’ or the populist pretensions of Donald Trump. While it seems evident now that Trump was never more than a minor inconvenience in the CIA’s plans for murder, mayhem, and world domination, this wasn’t evident at the outset of his tenure in the White House. John Brennan and James Clapper have demonstrated over long careers that the well-behaved fascism of corporate political control, for profit militarism, targeted and occasionally brutal repression of the ‘little people’ and democracy in name only, are fine with them.

What they and the PMC do object to is any notion of democracy that doesn’t leave them in control of everything that it allegedly exists to determine. If elected leaders believe they have a legitimate reason for taking military action, why do they resort to using political and psychological coercion (like Russiagate) rather than taking their case to the people? If other, much poorer, countries can run free and fair elections, why can’t the U.S.? And why are corporate representatives allowed to craft public policies when their interests diverge from the public’s?

That none of the Russiagate charges turned out to have merit has had no determinable political impact to date. Its central protagonists knew they were telling lies (links above) all along. Not considered by the Russiagate acolytes is that those telling lies weren’t lying to the marginally literate ‘fascists’ who should in elite theory have been the easiest to fool. Those people don’t spend their days reading the New York Times and listening to NPR. They were lying to the educated elite. And lest this elite imagine that it was in on the lies— they quite conspicuously believed every word of them.

That Brennan, Clapper and company are everything that liberals claim to hate about Donald Trump—tacky talk show hosts who spout whatever bullshit comes to mind if they think it will close the deal, suggests that Trump himself would be a #Resistance hero if he had run as a Democrat. Otherwise, bright lights on the left can’t seem to get past the notion that the establishment press always reports bullshit when doing so is politically convenient. Reporting what power says rather than what it does is to be a mouthpiece for power. That is what the establishment press does, and that is why it is considered the ‘legitimate’ source.

As befits this moment in history, there are no generally applicable lessons to be drawn from Russiagate. Its central protagonists have already moved on to the ‘restoring integrity to the White House’ grift. By making the election a choice between getting ass cancer or shingles, Biden or Trump— you decide which is which, the nation has reached a zenith of sorts. This type of moment produced punk rock in an earlier age. Again, as befits the age, we now have the moment without the punk rock. As the existential philosophers had it, despair is our friend. At least that’s what Putin tells me.

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