New rant by me at a-Infos radio. Only 36 mins long as I was feeling merciful:
New rant by me at a-Infos radio. Only 36 mins long as I was feeling merciful:
From the beginning, we knew that this election would never happen. An election of representatives for any office involves the belief that they will represent the electorate. In the past, this system has been imperfect and undemocratic, but developing tools of mass persuasion have taken voting societies further and further away from democracy. In 2016 USA things have reached the logical conclusion wherein the public acts of voting are no longer related to a real act of election by an actual electorate.
I take my title and opening line from Jean Baudrillard who claimed the 1991 “Gulf War” was a literal “non-event”. The USA has now become the Disney version of 1984 and it seems right to draw on Baudrillard’s superposition of Disneyland fakery and the all-too-real atrocities that happened in Iraq and Kuwait. However, though Baudrillard leaves room for anger and anguish at the human suffering from the non-event, he indulges the avoidance of naming the real that hides behind the “hyperreal”. The non-event is an extension of the control of language in what Orwell described as “the defence of the indefensible”. Baudrillard was in some ways determined never to look behind the façade, and the non-event of this fake election of dead politics hides a real dynamic of empire which ordinary people would never countenance if it were shown to them as it truly is. I want to go beyond performing the autopsy of US politics, and find the events that do still take place, the ones that polite people don’t like to talk about.
The time also seems right to revisit some lines in a Yeats poem that was written in 1919: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” It describes people yearning for a “Second Coming”, and ends prophetically, on the dawn of Fascism and Nazism, with the lines:
“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
We have entered a fact-free zone. Sometimes it seems that the truth has entered a state of quantum indeterminacy where two contradictory things are simultaneously true until the waveform is collapsed by observations by political pollsters. For example, when the Clinton camp attributed their candidate’s 9/11 collapse to overheating, differing journalists and commentators simultaneously reported a that it was an unusually hot day or an unusually cold day. Another instance can be seen in these headlines from editions of the Wall St. Journal:
A lot of amazing things are happening in “journalism” these days. Here’s one that still has me floored. pic.twitter.com/1nN309ZFvp
— E!! (@elizthompsn) September 2, 2016
Events wildly plot a drunken careering narrative and each potential voter is forced into more and more speculative interpretation of what those events actually signify. People want to vote for a candidate according to their interests and principles, but those who still believe with “passionate intensity” that they can do so by voting for Trump or Clinton are dangerously deluded. As everything else about the year 2016 becomes muddier and weirder with each passing day, the only thing that is becoming more clear at every moment is that the 2016 election will not take place.
The Stinking Corpse of Democracy
From January to March 1991 the post-modernist Jean Baudrillard published 3 articles: “The Gulf War will not take place”; “The Gulf War is not really taking place?” and “The Gulf War did not take place”. Baudrillard was describing the war as a hyperreal simulation of something that has no origin in reality. “Hyperreal” refers to a situation where a simulation of a possible reality is indistinguishable from reality and is thus a type of reality itself. What happened in Kuwait and Iraq in 1991 was not war, however it was made into a simulation of war and it was experienced as being war by those watching it on CNN.
“This is why the Gulf War will not take place. It is neither reassuring nor comforting that it has become bogged in interminable suspense. In this sense, the gravity of the non-event in the Gulf is even greater than the event of war: it corresponds to the highly toxic period which affects a rotting corpse and which can cause nausea and powerless stupor.”
Baudrillard put the basic case most succinctly when he wrote: “Since this war was won in advance, we will never know what it would have been like had it existed. We will never know what an Iraqi taking part with a chance of fighting would have been like. We will never know what an American taking part with a chance of being beaten would have been like.”
The Baudrillard articles drew attention to something important (the fact that there was no war) but they also drew attention away from the fact that the “Gulf War” was an act of genocide; a very concrete, banal and definitely not at all “hyperreal” act of co-ordinated mass violence and destruction aimed at the nation and the people of Iraq. Baudrillard may have missed the mark on the Iraq War, but his remarks could be very fittingly adapted to 2016. To paraphrase: “…here comes the dead election and the necessity of dealing with this decomposing corpse which nobody from Washington DC has managed to revive. Trump and Clinton are fighting over the corpse of an election.”
Let me be clear, the people of the US have not lost democracy. They never had it. No modern countries are democracies. In countries with elections undemocratic power is given to numerous people, some of whom are elected. The theory is that by vesting the highest authority in officials who are elected, this will create an electoral process of candidates who seek and receive a mandate. Thus, by acting as a mandated elected official even though the power of the office may be undemocratic, this will bring about democratic governance. This is all jolly good, except that it doesn’t work. Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page made news a couple of years ago by releasing a study in 2014. While they acknowledge that having free speech is an important democratic institution, in policy terms: “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
One writer called the Page and Gillens paper “the ‘Duh’ report” because anyone paying attention should have already known the truth. It roughly confirms what C. Wright Mills had diagnosed nearly 60 years earlier in his book The Power Elite, which showed the oligarchic nature of US political governance. The US has long had issues of plutocratic corruption intervening in government but the 20th century saw a change from influencing government against the wishes of the electorate to consciously shaping the electorate in order to “engineer the consent” of the governed. Democracy had always been a unrealised promise in the US, shoehorned uncomfortably into the Constitution by anti-Federalists against the wishes of Federalists (like the puzzlingly celebrated Alexander Hamilton). The promise of democracy died with the advent of the Commission on Public Information in 1917 which began an era of “guided democracy” in the US. Oligarchs and bureaucrats turned their minds towards shaping and controlling public opinion while plutocrats still tried to ensure that governance was not overly influenced against the interests of capital by this already mediated public opinion.
We take it all for granted now, but suddenly many different entities wanted to adopt the purposes that had previously been those of politicians, impressarios and snake-oil salesmen. The FBI published heroic literature about “g-men”, and black propaganda smearing Black Power and left-wing movements. The CIA, still one of the biggest publishers in the world, promoted jazz, abstract art and the right sort of academic work. They established themselves in every major news media organ in the “free” world. Hollywood established a close working relationship with different parts of the US government, becoming a willing source of propaganda, and largely integrated into the military-industrial complex (through both ownership and the close working relationship with the Pentagon and CIA). Advertising agencies, over and above the immediate purpose of selling, were slavishly loyal promoters of “free enterprise”, the “American dream”, consumerism, and the values of gendered racialised class hierarchy. For evidence you need look no further than this extraordinary (and ballsy) meta-propaganda about advertising:
Throughout the 20th century, governance in the US also became ever more technocratic and removed from public sight at the same time as the more overt part of governance (elected administrations and legislators) became subject to ever more inescapable and sophisticated perception management. It is difficult to see past the projected self-image of the US as the sort of country that has a minimal government (even to the point of neglecting the vulnerable and allowing infrastructure to crumble) but the truth is that the US has a vast state sector. Combining all levels of government it spent $6.134 trillion in 2010. This is many times higher than China which seems to be a distant second in terms of state sector expenditure.
The machinery of government in the US is enormous and has a Byzantine bureaucratic complexity of overlapping jurisdictions. The documentary above gave an image of a society of free agents with a welfare oriented government. In reality under neoliberalism government, using the pretext of shrinking itself, reallocates resources to state coercion: military, intelligence, police and incarceration. What welfare remains becomes a tool of state control under an ideology that criminalises or pathologises neediness of any form. If you have no home, for example, the state feels it can dictate behavioural and moral codes that are the absolute antithesis of the proclaimed “liberty” that is considered the norm of society.
Meanwhile, the US government at various levels has control of the greatest machinery of state violence and oppression that has ever existed. Some people refer to these capabilities as a “turnkey tyranny” (the phrase existed long before Edward Snowden’s usage) but that creates the unfortunate sense that the entire apparatus is currently turned off (and that some people are conspiring to suddenly turn it on). In reality there is a continuum of state coercion. In the US case the capability for rounding people up and putting them in FEMA camps will probably never be more than a remote, but scary, potential. On the other hand, surveillance, intrusive policing and security, militarised policing, restrictions on liberties, and fear-mongering are already familiar parts of routine and banal oppression. These shape and control people in ways that don’t involve direct physical coercion, but are not merely brainwashing people into happy consumerist zombies either. There is a carrot laced with tranquillisers, but there is also a stick. Sheldon Wolin called the resulting system “inverted totalitarianism”.
The freedom enjoyed by Usanians is the contingent freedom enjoyed by the Eloi in H.G. Wells’ anti-capitalist allegory The Time Machine. They live lives of consumerist luxury right up until the point that some are abducted and eaten. The same is true of those who fall foul of the massive private or governmental bureaucracies that run the USA, and I think that it is good to set-aside our visions of a land with 48-flavours-of-ice-cream and look at the grim, grey inhuman machinery that coexists with consumerist pseudo-liberty.
We have found in all of the former “free world” that our sneers at communist bread queues were premature. We felt superior because capitalism seemed to be designed to meet our needs and desires efficiently, but now that it faces no ideological competition we find that it just wants to sell us barely functional goods and when we call for support or service, to place us on hold for hours. I guess it is better than being hungry waiting in the cold winter, but it is hard to deny that capitalist private bureaucracy is just as entitled and unhelpful as socialist government bureaucracy. In the US it can be deadly. For example, by denying insurance cover to people with life-threatening conditions pen-pushing penny-pinchers from Aetna and other such “providers” hand out death-sentences. The US has a corporatised health sector that is measurably more inefficient, more bureaucratic, more inhumane and much more expensive than actual “socialism”, and it forces people to buy private insurance or face a fine (or, as Forbes spins it, because of exemptions “only 4 million people” are expected to be subject to fines in 2016, and we all know that any law that only affects 4 million doesn’t really count). Employers can also simply garnish wages without permission to enrol workers in the employer’s chosen insurance plan.
Moreover, in this land of private/public dual tyranny, eminent domain laws in the US are often used to forcibly alienate property for the benefit of private capital (because individual states can determine what is “public use”) in the manner that does not happen in other countries.
Meanwhile those who fall into the gears of the “justice” system may find fates that seem akin to terrible stories of mediaeval cruelty, grim totalitarianism, or dystopian science-fiction nightmare. In a Milwaukee gaol, under the jurisdiction of Trump supporter David Clarke, an imprisoned suspect had his water shut off for 6 days. Witnesses heard him beg repeatedly for water as he slowly died of “profound dehydration”.
In many countries the rights of criminal suspects are minimal despite the supposed presumption of innocence, but in the US this can reach a soul-crushing extreme such as in the case of Kalief Browder. He refused to plead guilty to stealing a backpack and because the case against him was thin to non-existent, he spent 3 years, from age 16, enduring terrible conditions and violent abuse at Rykers Island prison. He killed himself 2 years after release. A different horror was endured by Roberta Blake. Not knowing that she had an arrest warrant for returning a rental car late, she was detained in California and spent two weeks in a cage in an overheated van being taken to Alabama to face “justice” for her heinous crime: “Lacking both privacy and sanitary napkins, she had to use a cup in front of the male guards and prisoners when she began menstruating. After another prisoner ripped off her shirt, she spent the rest of the trip in a sports bra.” In most developed countries it would be illegal to treat an animal that way.
Staying on the subject of the accused, I want to remind readers that a Pennsylvania judge received millions in kickbacks for sending thousands of children into institutions. Given the level of corruption victimising so many kids, some of them from white-collar households, is it any surprise that some claim similar corruption is part of the adult incarceration system?
I mention these things to show that “guided democracy” (which is not democratic) produces a tyranny with two faces. These things happen because the accused are unpeople and that itself is a product of an elite “guided democracy” culture in the US that is authoritarian, lacking in empathy, and phobic about poor people.
All I have detailed is just passive and reflexive brutality. It is incidental and can fall on any non-rich person unlucky enough to fall foul of a capricious state, but you will notice that I haven’t even mentioned racialised police violence, the school-to-prison pipeline, and mass incarceration. That is a more active aspect of tyranny that functions (like “anti-terrorism” or the “war” on any other internal or external threat) to normalise oppression and market it to a much wider demographic than that specifically targetted. I won’t waste anyone’s time by detailing the latest horrors of police violence in the US, nor the everyday obscenity of mass incarceration. Readers are probably familiar with the topic, and I just ask that they bear it in mind as being an important element of this story that I am consciously omitting.
The Stinking Corpse of Politics
When Sheldon Wolin wrote Democracy Inc. he was effectively writing the obituary of “guided democracy”. Guided democracy was beginning to give way to something new which Wolin likened to 20th century tyrannies, but characterised as “inverted”. A “new type of political system, seemingly one driven by abstract totalizing powers, not by personal rule, one that succeeds by encouraging political disengagement rather than mass mobilization, that relies more on “private” media than on public agencies to disseminate propaganda reinforcing the official version of events.”
Before continuing, I must clear up a problem I have with the terminology. I cannot endorse Wolin’s (or any) use of the term “totalitarianism” because it has no potential for judicious usage. It was coined to refer to Italian Fascism to refer to the totality of the purview of the state, but both that regime and the current US regime show that defining what is and is not the state is actually subjective. The very concept of “inverted totalitarianism” or “totalitarian democracy” along with new coinages like “globalitarian” show that the word itself is useless. In fact, totalitarianism has primarily been used to create a concept which suggests that Nazism and Communism are of the same essence, but Western liberalism existentially distinct (which, by the way, is why it was one of the academic notions promoted by the CIA). Both the Soviets and the Nazis did the same thing in their time, as Slavoj Žižek explains: “Thus Stalinism in the 1930s constructed the agency of Imperialist Monopoly Capital to prove that Fascists and Social Democrats (‘Social Fascists’) are ‘twin brothers’, the ‘left and right hand of monopoly capital’. Thus Nazism itself constructed the ‘plutocratic-Bolshevik plot’ as the common agent who threatens the welfare of the German nation.”
However, Wolin also referred to inverted totalitarianism as being “a kind of fascism”. “Fascism” is a much better term to use, as I have argued at great length (in two parts). Though “fascism” is clearly too common and low-rent a concept for some people (who maintain their status with claims to exclusive multisyllabic knowledge), it is perfect in conveying an apt historical comparison. Henceforth, therefore, I will use “fascism” because it may be subjective, but even people who disagree with the usage will know exactly what I am referring to and why.
Wolin’s annunciation of the conception of a new fascism should also have pointed to the immanence of a new “rough beast”. We have seen, in the last 14 years, that the “inverted” part of Wolin’s described fascism is unstable and contingent. Like the pluralism of Weimar Germany it could be replaced with leader worship and more conventionally oriented fascism in short order. Ann Coulter, (author of In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome) recently said: “I worship him like the North Koreans worship the ‘Dear Leaders’ — yes, I would die for him.” Coulter might seem to be a clown or a liar trying to flog a bad book, but we can no longer doubt that Trump does have a cult of personality and very dangerously deranged followers. For example there is this irrational rant from a Trump supporter:
Note that he is wrong in every aspect of what he accusers Shah of being: her candidate is running against Clinton; Shah is US born; and, as it happens, she is not Muslim. His passion for these lies, though, is about as real as anything gets in this time. The self-deception that is so widespread is part of this erosion of the “inverted” corporate and impersonal aspect of US fascism. Obama has very frequently evinced his Christian faith over the years, but millions think he is either Muslim or even the Antichrist. Trump, on the other hand, doesn’t make a big deal out of religion and yet he is still treated as the instrument of God. My argument would be that some feminists have exactly the same faith-based irrational and ironic view of Clinton that these “Christians” have of Trump. Both are equally unlikely avatars of the spirit of each faith and the blindness of the followers is very reminiscent of a fascist cult of personality.
The ever scary nationalist fervour in the US has also entered into the realms of mass hysteria. This year’s DNC and RNC showed plenty of evidence of violent irrationality. Only ten years ago neoconservatives were mocked by the “reality-based community” for saying things like: “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” Now, their view of history and of the US role in it has gone mainstream. There is no escaping the conclusion politics are dead and the US is taking an extended holiday (or vacation) away from reality.
We have entered what people are calling the “age of post-truth politics”. Here in Aotearoa it happened very suddenly. We went from being very hard on politicians when they were caught lying, to having a Prime Minister who lies constantly and freely and who gets away with it because the media adopted the self-fulfilling prophecy of saying that people are not bothered by his lying and therefore there is little point in drawing their attention to it by making a big deal of it. In short, the media created a new post-truth norm overnight.
In contrast, the US journey towards this post-truth moment has been a long and well sign-posted journey. The practice of “plausible denial” over covert action that began 70 years ago almost immediately became a practice that should more truly be known as “implausible denial” and was extended to overt military action. The system is simple: an official tells a blatant and obvious lie, then reporters report the statement as having been stated. No matter how thin the lie, it is treated as weighty. It is not analysed or fact-checked, because that is reserved for domestic policies that are contended between the two major parties. It may or may not be noted that others dispute the lie, but the real Orwellian and twisted part that occurs is that the media will forever after treat the lie as unquestionably having been believed by the officials in question.
Thus when the US destroyed a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory in 1998, newspapers outside of the US reported that Bill Clinton knew that beforehand that it was a civilian factory, but inside the US the cruise missile attack, even after it was found that the target was not a chemical weapons plant, reported that the strike was “an effort to curb the activities of the Saudi exile Osama bin Laden”.
Hillary Clinton and Trump are the logical outcome of a combination of mainstream media permissiveness when it comes to politicians lies, and the existence of partisan spheres or “reference groups”. These spheres have two levels. The inner level is the “partisan echo chamber” where you will never be informed that your chosen candidate lies. Apparently the inhabitants of this bubble are a minority, but the outer sphere is may be more important. In the outer sphere people aren’t like Coulter; they aren’t uncritically loyal and they don’t think of themselves as belonging to the Great Leader; they just know that the lies of the candidate they support are regrettable but not outrageous, unacceptable and dangerous like those of the rival candidate. Clinton supporters know that their candidate has a few imperfections, but Trump threatens all life as we know it and they don’t seem to find it at all remarkable that their opponents feel exactly the same way in reverse. They do not recognise their mirror images because years of something called the “culture wars” (which I won’t get into here) have made them blind to similarities outside of that culture war framework. In fact each stance can be rationally argued and we once again see a kind of political quantum superposition where these contradictory stances are simultaneously true. Both of them are the greatest threat currently facing humanity and they must both be stopped.
That is why I say that this election shows the death of politics, rather then merely democracy. There is no longer a machinery to control public opinion, but rather opinions themselves are rendered meaningless. Only the delusional are still taking the rhetoric of Clinton and Trump as being an indication of ideology and policy intent. People are trying to discern their character, but if they juxtapose each against the other trying to make a relative judgement they get into trouble. Which one is the crook? Which one is the liar? Which one is the warmonger? Which one is pro-corporate? If you think that the answers to that are easy, then you aren’t really paying attention.
Things have gotten so bad that in South Park they clearly struggled to decide which candidate should be represented as a Shit Sandwich and which candidate is really a Giant Douche. The creators are lucky that their storyline depicts their own fictional character opposing Clinton, because otherwise they would have to admit that both candidates this year are Shit Sandwich. Their 12 year-old allegory for no meaningful electoral choice is now too mild for the circumstances. We now choose between a Shit Sandwich made with puffy white bread that has a tendency to go soggy with shit juice, and one made with a stale multigrain that is pretty similar but may or may not be a little bit healthier over time.
The Desert of the Real…
… was a book by Slavoj Žižek published in the same year (2002) as Wolin’s Democracy Inc. It has its faults. Like Baudrillard on Iraq, Žižek imposes an inappropriate, if not offensive, semiotician’s interpretation of the bombing of Afghanistan. Instead of being a brutal act of imperialist aggression that can and should be compared with historical imperialism, Žižek asks if it isn’t “the ultimate case of impotent acting out?” In fact Žižek’s judgement in this ironically similar to the limitations he describes in others who cannot accept answers that fall outside of presupposed truth. As the old wisdom tells us, when you gaze long into Keanu, Keanu gazes also into you – to which I will add that Keanu knows fuck-all about geopolitics.
Another complaint, of a sort, is that reading The Desert of the Real today is somewhat like reading Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock in that events have so overtaken and exceeded the prophetic work that I tend to react by thinking: “You call that future shock? That is not even mild astonishment compared to what we have to cope with nowadays.” Žižek refers to Alan Badiou’s notion that the 20th century was dominated by “the passion for the real” which “was fake passion whose ruthless pursuit of the Real behind appearances was the ultimate stratagem to avoid confronting the Real.” With the benefit of the last 14 years of reality television informing us we can say back to 2002 Žižek: “No shit, Einstein.”
But Žižek was quite perceptive in seeing the beginnings of the regime that we now live in. The world of 2002 was one of “politics without politics” and Žižek saw the potential for a resurgent and dangerous right-wing. One passage should particularly resonate with those who are following the 2016 US presidential race: “A decade ago, in the State of Louisiana’s governor elections, when the only alternative to the ex-KKK David Duke was a corrupt Democrat, many cars displayed a sticker: ‘Vote for a crook – it’s important!’”
The 20th century “pursuit of the Real” may have chased reality away, but clearly Žižek understood early that this would take us back to the dangerous yearning for the authenticity of a Second Coming that Yeats perceived in 1919.
The Desert of the Real ends by asking “What if the true aim of this ‘war [on terror]’ is ourselves, our own ideological mobilization against the threat of the Act?” In many ways the war on terror has made people in Western countries accept discipline, control and surveillance that they would never have accepted otherwise, but in other ways there has been resistance. In some ways the things that are most obvious are the least significant because they are resisted and ultimately rejected. After 9/11 the US rounded up and detained hundreds of Muslims and foreigners. That practice ended. What stayed was the Department of Homeland Security, the Transport Safety Authority, and a new officially promoted “if you see something say something”. The most profound changes have come in those spaces of knowledge where people assent and accept subliminally because they feel no friction of resistance and they are anaesthetised. Some changes are too subtle, but others are too big. People stop thinking about them almost immediately because they become everyday normality very quickly.
As I alluded to earlier, the path to the current US post-truth post-politics moment follows through the territory of imperialist wars justified by a skein of lies that creates a pseudo-history. It is possible to discuss and dispute aspects of the pseudo-history in that same way that people can discuss and dispute aspects of Game of Thrones. It is still fiction.
Žižek described a dearth and death of reality that, to my prosaic mind, was the culmination of post-WWII US hypocrisy and exceptionalism. What is happening in the 2016 election is due to the fact that on September 11 2001, the US stopped merely stringing together lies and launched a “global” war that is framed within one giant fairytale. For 15 years it has been as if every day the US has destroyed another Sudanese factory, but the lies have become to large and too numerous. They penetrate everywhere and inter-penetrate each other so that they cannot be refuted singly.
The real is abolished, and no one really wants it any more. Trump recently rewrote history by saying that a “stop-and-frisk” policing policy worked wonders for New York. Some challenge that, but not because it is untrue, but because they are not on Trump’s side. Yet there is little objection when John Kerry spoke to the UN General assembly:
— Syricide (@Syricide) September 21, 2016
The gall of the man is not merely from the inappropriate dismissiveness (compare this to attitude towards the attack on the USS Cole which killed 17 sailors), but also in brushing over the very obvious questions raised by claiming that this was an “accident”. It took me all of 5 minutes after putting in the search terms “syria deir ez-zor map forces” to find out that there is a prima facie case that the act must have been deliberate. I could easily just look at news reports from the past 6 months that make it hard to avoid the conclusion that the US-led attack must have been intended to aid the forces of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State”. Once you consider in addition that within minutes of the attack the self-proclaimed “IS” launched an attack that has halted or reversed 6 months of slow SAA progress towards lifting the siege of Deir ez-Zor, then the incident looks very much like air support for “IS” forces. I would defy anyone to give any other explanation as to why the US would suddenly decide to bomb in this area, where the only military forces are the Syrian Arab Army and the “IS”. At the very least every journalist should report that the circumstances suggest that until their actions are explained, US claims should not be seen as credible as they are not reconcilable with the facts as we currently understand them.
Down the Rabbit Hole
I am about to write something that may be the most controversial thing I have ever written. I realise that many people will hate me for this, and I fully expect to be hunted down and savaged by vicious sci-fi nerds. But there comes a time when destiny calls, and it is my destiny to say something heretical about The Matrix…
Here is my testament: If someone called “Morpheus” (the Greek god of dreams) offers to take you “down the rabbit hole” (an allusion to entering “Wonderland”) and you then end up perceiving a new reality in which you are the messiah, but the most fundamental fact of human existence (that people are in a virtual world being used by a machine intelligence as a way of generating electricity) makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, then accepting Morpheus’ offer is choosing delusion over reality. That means that “taking the red pill” means indulging delusions, lies and fantasy.
To recap: 1) Morpheus = god of dreams; 2) “down the rabbit hole” = journey into fantasy; 3) world of people hooked up as batteries = self-evident nonsense; 4) messianic mission = attractive delusion satisfying to ego and superego (and id once you throw in the inevitable “love interest”).
Ironically people refer to “taking the red pill” as being a path to enlightenment. Even more ironically it is linked to “9/11 truth” activism. But the people who took the red pill on 9/11 were the people in the US government, the elected officials, the military personnel, the spooks, the cops, the administrators. They, along with much of the population of the Western world, entered a phantasmagorical parallel universe, the GWOT Wonderland, where the fundamental premise of the main fact shaping the world makes no sense.
The Matrix tricks its viewers in the same way that science fiction author Philip K. Dick would often trick his readers. But where Dick’s deception was either playful or served a serious purpose (or both), the Wachowskis were either more mean-spirited or simply underestimated the human capacity for self-deception. The desire for purpose and the need for meaningfulness in one’s life drives people to perceive Neo’s journey as a revelation of truth rather than a descent into madness despite the heavy-handed hints I mentioned. The messiah figure is enticing because it satisfies narcissism and altruism simultaneously in a way that real life does not offer. As it happens, Phil Dick also explored this desire with black humour in “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale” which formed the basis of the films Total Recall. The short story parallels the Total Recall film adaptations up to a point but has crucial further developments that we omitted from the films. When the protagonist’s belief that he is a secret agent becomes rationally unsustainable he “remembers” that he is actually an alien emissary sent to bring peace and enlightenment to humanity. When the alien emissary narrative is fatally challenged by its own irrational contradictions, then the protagonist “remembers” that even that was actually a cover identity for his real nature which is the actual messiah and saviour of all humankind.
There is a lot of power in the attractiveness of a sense of messianic purpose, but in The Matrix it is used to scam people. They overlook the obvious because that are deceived into doing so. I would even call it the “Neo con” (if I were cruel enough to inflict such a bad pun on readers) because it is a good model of the trickery that keeps people from seeing the obvious lies of the Global War on Terror.
The neocons themselves were and are a mix of scammers and scammed. Whether they believed the lies or not, they evinced a messianic purpose for the US. It is true that the fundamental benevolence of the enterprise did not bear much scrutiny, but then again the fundamental rationality did not bear scrutiny either. The point, like The Matrix, is not to conceal lies but to disincentivise the perception of unhidden lies. As the neocons’ direct influence seemed to fade, the fundamental parts of their worldview were left behind as mainstream political orthodoxy. The distinction between neocons and liberal interventionists (as I have repeatedly written) was never significant anyway and now we inhabit the world they created.
In The Matrix the whole purpose of the eponymous Matrix itself is explained as being a completely infeasible and physically impossible system of generating electricity. It is stated as quickly as possible, and the real trick is that those who do notice the impossibility will blame poor narrative construction and not suspect that it is key evidence of the real nature of what is happening. In the war on terror, Islamic terrorism is constantly highlighted but the connection with foreign policy is passed over very quickly, even though it is the central explanation for why the US needs to invade and bomb so widely. The US military still hands out medals for the GWOT so the basic premise is still that their far-flung interventions are a response to terrorism. The fall-back position is that even if it doesn’t make sense to attack other countries to stop terrorism, it is a real if mistaken belief on the part of officials.
Whether it is the Neocons or the Wachowskis, people never stop to consider whether it is reasonable to think that their unreasonableness is in earnest. Wolin, for example, keeps repeating that “inverted totalitarianism” came about without intention: “It has no Mein Kampf as an inspiration” he tells us in between quotes from various neocon equivalents. The ideology, the strategy, the intention and the foresight of consequences are all there to be seen, for those who will see them rather than asserting that they cannot be there. Once you figure out that the neocons and their allies must have deliberately crafted the terrorism lie, it puts quite a different spin on things.
15 years into this delusion we have seen military actions coalesce into a slow-motion World War. Without citing the threat of terrorism, the US could not have taken military action against Afghanistan or Iraq. Yet we shouldn’t forget that the threat of terrorism is still used to give people the impression that there is some natural and urgent reason for the US to be involved in Islamic countries. If we take the instances of Syria or Libya, they conflate concerns about the crimes of the dictatorial regime with concerns about terrorism. It makes no more sense than when the Nazis claimed that there was a single conspiracy of Communism and Western capitalism. Yet without being able to say the “IS” is a threat to the homeland, moves against regimes like Libya’s and Syria’s might be difficult to explain in light of, say, the ongoing support for Saudi Arabia or Egypt or any of the many brutal regimes that the US considers to be friendly and “moderate”. It makes no sense to attack regimes that oppose the alleged sources of terror, but that doesn’t really matter any more than it makes no sense to provide a massive life support and virtual reality infrastructure to billions of humans just so you can use them as energy cells. The senselessness is irrelevant.
We have gone down the rabbit hole, because even if we know that it is irrational to say that US interventions are against terror or because they oppose the oppression of dictators, we have no other coherent narrative. That is why I am constantly pushing for people to recognise that US interventions are genocides, attacks aimed at extending imperial power by committing violence and destruction against peoples and nations as such. It is that simple. It is also that banal. It is a grey world where even the most cruel of crimes are just another day at the office for some of the perpetrators. People prefer a dramatic fantasy narrative of anti-terror and humanitarian intervention to prevent the “next Rwanda”, yet most highly educated people would consider me a fantasist because suggesting a coherence in US foreign policy is a “conspiracy theory”.
Sauce for the Gander
In the end, if we have accepted irrationality and lies for so long; if we have for 15 years purged those who cannot live with cognitive dissonance from public and private areas of authority; should it surprise us that we have created the circumstances where truth is no longer relevant? Kerry, Clinton, Power and Obama are all capable at any day of the week of telling preposterous and monstrous lies. It is impossible to tell, for example, if Samantha Power is completely insane or not. Like Tony Blair she seems to be so deeply “in character” that the original human host, the once beloved daughter of Mr and Mrs Power, has been murdered by this bloodthirsty monster.
If you think Trump has gumption, think of the sheer chutzpah shown by Power when she turned the US massacre of Syrian personnel into an chance to attack Russia for daring to criticise the US: “even by Russia’s standards, tonight’s stunt – a stunt replete with moralism and grandstanding – is uniquely cynical and hypocritical.” As Gary Leupp writes, she is “condemning Russia for condemning a war crime”.
Our semiotician friends Baudrillard and Žižek like to condemn atrocious actions, but they avoid suggesting that there might be some premeditation and conscious shaping of the semantic. Žižek would probably consider me to be crude, primitive and jarring in my insistence on continually returning to a realist perspective. However Žižek has alienated many on the left with his comments on the European refugee crisis and I like to think that my more pointed view allows me to be honest about the refugee crisis without falling into disproportionate victim-blaming that amounts to xenophobia (regardless of whether it is literally true or not). On this subject Žižek is purely and smoothly in concord with the right. He is effectively like one of those second-degree racists who neatly substitute nurture for nature and justify fear and bigotry on the basis of “environment” instead of genetics. To my mind this is the logical outcome of never being brave enough to go out on a limb and say that there is a locus of power behind the events that shape our narrative perception. It may not be a literal Star Chamber of sinister conspirators, but power coalesces again and again in ways that form virtual Star Chambers and once you understand that mass transformations are often imposed from above then it makes little sense to fret about whether some refugees are rapists in the midst of a metastasising holocaust that has killed millions and threatens tens of millions.
Žižek wants to state a generality that is true and comforting (that the West is not responsible for every bad thing in the world) without testing whether it is actually applicable to the specific case he addresses. For example, Žižek says that the Rwanda genocide can’t be blamed on the West, because he is ignorant of the history. The US acted in co-ordination with Uganda and the Rwandan Patriotic Front to destabilise the country and provoke ethnic violence. Perhaps the resulting genocide was far beyond what they wished for, or perhaps not. It was not the end of US-backed ethnic violence in Rwanda and bordering areas of the DR Congo, so the provocateurs cannot have been too appalled at the violence. Nor does the US history of slaughter in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East allow us to take seriously the horror they evince at the Rwanda Genocide, nor the way they use the memory of it as a pretext for their own acts of genocide.
Likewise, Žižek says that the refugee crisis cannot be blamed entirely on the West because “ISIS” is an “active response”. The problem is that we either have to confront the fact that “IS” is a deliberate creation of the US empire, or we remain in Wonderland where magically, just when the US needs a new pretext to carry on the wars that it is already fighting, “IS” appears. Miraculously, because of “IS”, the US gets to continue the wars it was already fighting for other reasons even when the primary activity of this wars is to attack the enemies of “IS”.
We know that the US armed the “IS” forces, but we are meant to believe that they did it somehow by accident. A country suddenly appeared and found itself governing millions while simultaneously fighting a four-front war against established national armies and ethnic militias. Despite being land-locked and surrounded by putative enemies it has remained in play for 2 years. It is as if the Nazis had consolidated in Bavaria in 1945 and were still there in defiance of the Allies best effort in 1947. It simply makes no sense.
That is why a lying reality show personality and probable child rapist can make a credible run for the highest office in the US. It is because we have had 15 years of deluded and/or shameless US imperialists doubling down over and over and over again on their lies. We are trapped in Wonderland, because it hurts people to think of reality; because people want to believe Žižek’s announcement that not everything is the West’s fault; and they want to join in with his implied sneer at those who say otherwise.
The 2016 US election will not take place because reality is in abeyance. Young people might not even know what it is any more. They see all the shades of grey, but they can no longer conceptualise black or white, so it is hard to find meaning. The trivial and the profound are no longer distinguishable, not because of some general social evolution, but because managed democracy evolved as a system of political domination. This is the result of astroturfing, greenwashing, pinkwashing, native advertising, product placement, grey propaganda, and so forth. We did not just end up like this because we are spoilt and spend too much time on social media. This was done to us.
So there is Trump. He is a sick joke. His party, which he seems almost completely detached from, is like magician’s illusion: a giant edifice that seems to be levitating with no visible means of support. He has the endorsement of the patriarch of the “Duck Dynasty” Phil Robertson who offered to baptise him on camera to get “God on our side”. Apparently even God no longer believes in the Real until it is on reality television. But it takes two to tango; Hillary Clinton is no more real than Trump and the polls show that ordinary people know it.
The 2016 election will be a non-event. The way the votes are counted will shape the destiny of the world, but the voting itself will be an empty ritual. That is not a reason not to vote, it is actually a reason to reject the idea that your vote was wasted. The votes are not wasted, but even if they are counted they are stolen. Stolen by fictional candidates like Trump and Clinton and stolen by the death of politics. Vote your conscience and then live according to it. Let everyone know that your vote was stolen by a system that is fraudulent. Make sure that everyone remembers that it is a lie every time they tell you that you might not like what the President does but you have to accept it because that is the way democracy works.
One day they will push the lies too far and Wonderland will shatter, releasing us from this dark sphere back into the light.
In response to my recent article on US imperial wars some people objected to my characterisation of the US empire. I wrote: “In global terms the US has never been more powerful” and some were quick to point out that the US empire is very weak. To those people I want to say that we are both right, but the weaknesses of the US empire do not generally affect its functioning. One day these weakness will become very, very important, but we cannot predict when that will be. In the meantime, critics of US empire undermine themselves by their focus on weakness, which often leads to millenarian predictions of immanent collapse.
To explain, I will begin by giving shape to the empire’s dynamic of power and weakness. There is nothing new in suggesting that empires can become victims of their own success. “Imperial overreach” is a common enough term and it is clearly worrying at least one imperialist (Zbigniew Brzezinski, whom I will discuss further at a later point). However, while the established language of “stretch”, “overextension” and “centrifugal forces” evoke 2 dimensions, I want to suggest that we visualise the empire in 3 dimensions.
2-dimensional metaphors of imperium are cartographic in origin. They reflect the logistical, strategic and tactical concerns of an empire of military, bureaucratic and economic control. The irony is that the imperial quest to conquer and tame geography is also a process of transcending geography with institutions and communications which erase differences and distances. Geography is still important in many respects, but I think we need to visualise the totality of empire in an abstract way, because in some important ways it has become a post-geographic empire wherein many important connections exist without physical proximity. This changes some facts of empire, even if others remain the same.
For example, the British had to worry about the “agency problem” in India which could be epitomised by, say, an East Indian company employee marrying a local woman and setting up in business with his new in-laws. This was very common, and the response from the Empire was to create a segregationist and anti-miscegenation racial discourse (and to ship young British women to India in bulk consignments). In contrast, the US can send agents to any country without such worry due to transnationalisation and global mobility. Though there is still a bias towards people of European descent, diplomats, spies, contractors, investors, missionaries, and garrisoning troops are ever more likely to be people of colour. Far from needing to keep its people separate, the US empire is benefiting from its ability to send agents who have ethnic origins and family ties to the neocolony in question. Meanwhile comprador oligarchs (especially in the Western hemisphere) are educated in the US and may have residences and business concerns in the US. The nationality on your birth certificate might limit your power at the highest levels (unless Trump and the “birthers” are correct), but there is still an international imperial elite including many non-US nationals who wield great power.
My proposal for an abstract 3-dimensional model of imperial power is a foam of conjoined bubbles. Each bubble represents a discrete institution of imperial power relations has the properties which we associate with metaphorical bubble such as a price bubble.
Imperial power relations are bubbles because the empire is a structure which puts power into the hands of the few. As Antonio Gramsci famously observed there must be “Consent” to domination, and as Gandhi noted: “We in India may in moment realize that one hundred thousand Englishmen need not frighten three hundred million human beings.” This sets up a dynamic that necessarily inclines towards an increasing but individually unsustainable concentration of power with the necessary increase of coercive power being a threat to the “hegemony” that maintains the consent of the governed.
Not every aspect of imperial power replicates the dynamics of an economic bubble, but I think that enough do to make the generalisation valid. In the resulting imperial spume each bubble; such as petrochemical hegemony, financial hegemony, or entertainment media hegemony, must individually expand or die, but the conjoined bubbles can artificially prevent a bubble burst, or may at other times simply fill the space so that the imperial mass continues with little diminishment. But as the bubbles continue a general trend of expansion there will be an increasing number of bubbles large enough that the bursting will set off a chain reaction. Theoretically there will come a point where the increasingly dominant and powerful empire will be susceptible to complete collapse from the tiniest pin-prick.
The problem is that the system is too complex for us to predict. We don’t know where we are at. The empire has responsive institutions, so vulnerabilities that are predictable are compensated for. This itself feeds the processes of inflation. To use another analogy, perhaps the future will bring a giant iceberg of imperial weakness which is foreseen, but cannot be avoided. It is possible, but the empire is constantly steering among icebergs. I think it is more likely that one day an unforeseen fault will cause a cascade failure, destroying the ability to steer. After that we can spend all the time we want arguing whether it was the unforeseen fault or the giant and obvious iceberg which is to blame (or praise) for the empire’s collapse.
Because of this unpredictability, the weaknesses of the US empire are significant potentialities, but they have little relevance in actuality. For those who oppose empire there is little to be gained fro focussing on imperial weakness.
I count myself among those who has a bias towards perceiving the inherent weakness, contradiction and self-defeat built into imperial expansion. We do not want to think of the empire as a “success” in any terms. We do not want to think that the mass-murderers of Washington DC might go to their graves believing that they have been on the side of the angels. We do not even really want to admit war and genocide can be used successfully to advance the interests of US empire. We want people to understand that nobody truly benefits from the cruel crimes of empire.
I do not want to believe that the US empire “wins” all the time, but I know that that is the real nature of empire. With very few exceptions it will always leverage from its superior power and will win every conflict eventually. Every time the US empire seems to be handed a defeat, it is only a matter of time before it becomes a US victory. In 1950 the US was worried about an independent Viet Nam becoming an industrialised socialist regional hegemon. Now Viet Nam is a poor neoliberal source of cheap labour that has signed the TPP and lets US warships use Cam Ranh bay and Haiphong harbour. The Phillippines evicted the US military in 1992, to much acclaim, but they were back a decade later and have been increasing their presence ever since (including announcing of 5 new bases in recent months).
They are also hard to stop when they decide to go to war. 3 years ago, after protest had prevented US bombing of Syria, I wrote “Though apparently thwarted in its efforts to justify action against Syria, the US is likely to continue looking for cracks in the wall of opposition and will exploit any opportunity to act, relying on its well established impunity.” Sure enough, in time the US began bombing Syria, having found a completely different rationale that coincidently meant they needed to bomb the country they had wanted to bomb for unrelated reasons just months before.
In Latin America, just a few years ago it seemed that the tide had turned decisively and enduringly against Usanian dominance, but now: Dilma Rouseff has been ousted; Venezuela is nearing collapse under the strain of US economic warfare and sabotage; Mauricio Macri plunged Argentina back into the deepest depths of neoliberalism; post-coup Honduras is rife with right-wing death squads; Rafael Correa will not be standing in the upcoming Ecuadoran election; and the historic peace-deal in Colombia has actually given a platform and relevance to mass-murderer Alvaro “I did it because it was a necessity” Uribe who is leading the right-wing campaign against peace (50 years of killing is apparently not enough).
In Europe, NATO has expanded to Russia’s borders in numerous places. India is now clearly in the US camp, a factor that should not be underestimated. Under AFRICOM (established 2002) the US military is now deeply entrenched and highly active throughout most of Africa. US military capabilities on the borders of rivals and enemies become ever more menacing with deployments such as the THAAD missiles in ROK, and ABM missiles in Romania and Poland.
The US remains the largest arms exporter and provider of military “aid”, but there has been a qualitative shift that increases the dependency of its clients. US weapons systems, and the insistence on “interoperability” amongst allies and clients, are now such that many military activities require US contractor or military personnel for maintenance. This gives the an unprecedented lever of control that supplements the military aid and training programmes that ensure that officers in the neocolonies are loyal to the empire. In direct terms the US can also, under circumstances decided by itself, take control of the massive and well armed forces of the Republic of Korea (ROK). Moreover, though its sidekick the UK has dropped from 2nd to 5th in military spending, it is now the second biggest arms dealer in the world.
The US has been proliferating missile defence systems which are designed to prevent retaliation from Russia after a massive US nuclear attack. This alone is causing dangerous instability, but the US is also trying to blur the lines between nuclear and conventional weapons to make them more “thinkable. Complementing this is a very expensive nuclear modernisation programme that includes many smaller “tactical” munitions.
In conventional terms the US also has excessive and peerless firepower. The US has 10 massive “supercarriers” currently in service. There total displacement is close enough to be called a megaton (1,000,000 tons). In contrast, adding all other countries aircraft carriers together you get under 200,000 tons of displacement (one fifth of the US strength). Total US naval size is 4 times that of its nearest rival (Russia): quote “the U.S. war fleet displaces nearly as much as all other warships in the world’s navies, combined.” Given that is also has the highest nuclear and conventional payloads, and the greatest technological sophistication, it is fair to say that the US Navy is considerably more powerful than all other navies combined.
In military terms the US is unquestionably a greater power now that it was in the past, and it is the greatest military power in world history.
The US has also gone from strength to strength in being able to impose economic control and in coercing and bribing governments into signing over economic sovereignty to the empire’s corporate arm. Once again it seems that the US empire never has to concede defeat, it merely bides its time and finds a new way forward when checked. The anti-globalisation movement in the late 1990s seemed spell the end of the march of neoliberalism. Indeed the Doha round of WTO negotiations, which started in 2002 and still continue, were hijacked by notions of development and welfare. Undeterred, the US has turned to bilateral and regional multilateral deals which further US hegemony and neoliberal governance. Now it gets to exploit the synergies that result from having its fingers in so many pies. The TPPA and TTIP, for example, also function to isolate China and Russia. We may still be holding a good fight against the TPPA, but the fact that the US could muscle in on someone else’s trade deal and then pervert in entirely to their own cause and then get the government’s concerned to sign the deal. Now many believe that TTIP is dead in the water. I would caution that there was a period when the TPPA also seemed dead (some say it is now), but stalled is not the same as dead.
The forces wanting these agreements are not going anywhere and no one is actually dismantling the process to this point. With the TPPA in particular, even if ratification becomes indefinitely delayed popular outrage, we don’t have a realistic way of getting the deal off the table altogether. This is a ratchet system, it can only go one way and it moves that way every time public pressure is relaxed or confounded.
Even if we defeat TPPA and TTIP, then there is already the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) which “imposes unprecedented restrictions on SOEs and will force majority owned SOEs to operate like private sector businesses.” As George Monbiot writes: “TTIP has been booed off the stage but another treaty, whose probable impacts are almost identical, is waiting in the wings. And this one is more advanced, wanting only final approval. If this happens before Britain leaves the EU, we are likely to be stuck with it for 20 years.”
We seem to have no means of reversing the progressive loss of economic sovereignty. Each individual country knows that they will be hammered if they take the first step. Thus in those periods where a country might be lucky enough to have a government that has a level of benevolent intent, they are constrained to trying to beautify our prison cells with some flowers and maybe (if we are really lucky) a comfortable vermin-free mattress. They provide insufficient and, above all, precarious well-being in a world where inequality has become a rampant cancer, as dangerous as it is obscene and surreal. Billionaires now own over $US7 trillion in wealth.
The empire can think up new ways of robbing and enslaving the people of the world because it owns our governments, it owns our bureaucrats, it owns our spooks, it owns our generals. As for multinational corporate interests (and their legions of lawyers and lobbyists and PR hacks), well the empire owns them and they own the empire (or is that the other way around?)
At the launch of a left-wing think tank author and academic Nick Srnicek said: “Neoliberalism is dead, and we have an opening to produce something new.” He is right, but wrong. His diagnosis is no different from what was said by people like him after the Asian Financial crisis 20 years ago. We must build intellectually robust counterarguments to neoliberalism, but we should realise it does not actually need to be intellectually valid to continue. You cannot kill that which does not live. Likewise, it is wrong to think that the rise of right-wing populism means an end to neoliberalism. It is a scam, and you don’t have to believe in the lies to perpetuate them or use them. Srnicek thinks that Trump is anti-neoliberal, which is what a lot of Argentinians thought about Mauricio Macri. Macri (who laid off 100,000 public sector workers in his first 3 months and deregulated labour laws for the benefit of employers) has just announced an end to energy subsidies which will cause a 400% rise in gas prices. Combined with Macri’s earlier move to raise wholesale electricity prices this will mean increases in power bills of up to 700%.
I think it is great, wonderful and necessary that we use the term “neoliberalism” as a catch-all term. It helps us draw links between the policies of our own governments and the international trends, and now people are grasping the fact that it has an authoritarian side. But I would caution against treating it as deriving its coherence from an ideology. As David Harvey pointed out in A Brief History of Neoliberalism neoliberals do not play by the rules they espouse.
Neoliberalism isn’t really particularly neo, it is just a new bottle for the old sour wine of market fundamentalism (as Fred Block explains in this interview). In practical terms, for example, Herbert Hoover was indistinguishable from a neoliberal except that he was less slick. In reality, the final nail in the intellectual coffin of market fundamentalism came before neoliberialism even existed. It was the work of economic historian Karl Polanyi whose unrefuted 1944 book The Great Transformation showed that market fundamentalism always was a bunch of crap going right back to its first policy applications in the 19th century. Polanyi also found exactly the same double standards in 19th century British laissez-faire that Harvey found in its modern incarnation, quoting a US Treasury Secretary who complained that the British Empire’s policy was “do as we say, don’t do as we do”.
Thus, neoliberalism always was an undead ideology of Zombie Economics. Personally I find it hard to believe that people take something like Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom seriously but clearly, like Ayn Rand, he is tapping into the hidden desire for absolution that obviously afflicts the wealthy and the bourgeois. It must be something like that, because it is a really pathetic book. First Churchill and then Thatcher had tens of thousands of copies distributed free to the Conservative Party faithful like it was the Tory Bible, or Little Red Book.
The thing about zombies is that, however shambling, they are hard to stop. There have been few sour notes in the orchestrated global advance of neoliberal imperialism. There have been thorns in the sides of the US – nation-states that just won’t play ball – but the empire has the time and expanse to quarantine such naughty countries until such time as they can crushed. People call the US weak, but they are destroying Syria now at no real cost to themselves. Syria was on a list, as was Libya. People point to Libya and call the intervention a failure, but Libya is fucked and it hasn’t hurt the empire in any way. Mission accomplished, surely? And then there is Iraq. Iraq, which would be an incredibly rich nation without intervention, is barely holding together. It is so divided that any powerful outsider (not just the US) can destabilise it. This is a clear win for the US, and they used the Iraq invasion to give $US19 billion of Iraq’s money to US contractors like Halliburton. Iraq now spends billions in oil money each year to buy US weapons and is completely dependent on US support to keep its government in one piece.
After what the US has done to Iraq, no one should think that Iraqis want the US there, but people still call the 20-year genocide a “failure” and a “tragic error”. It is an evil master-stroke, not a mistake. The empire is only threatened by such action in that eventually it may over-reach, so each success carries the germ of potential disaster. As I mentioned at the beginning though increased power and increased fragility go hand in hand. Maybe a collapse of the empire will come, but until that time the empire’s power is an actuality, but its weakness is only a potential.
People who develop the habit of announcing the immanent demise, or even just the weakness of the US will eventually find themselves in the same position as those cultists who have to sheepishly keep pushing back the date of the apocalypse as each predicted end-time passes without the end actually happening. Historians Joyce and Gabriel Kolko spent decades emphasising US weakness in foreign policy, beginning during the US war in Indochina. At each point, over the decades of writing, it seemed valid to highlight this supposed weakness, but if you trace their work through time that aspect of the work becomes ridiculous, which in turn brings into question their very understanding of the empire. Sun Tzu advised: “When you are strong, appear weak”, and US officials love nothing more than whingeing about their vulnerability and impotence. The Kolkos let themselves be misdirected. They let their desire for a more just world lead them astray.
The empire’s weaknesses are its contradictions, which is another way of saying what I wrote in the title: more power is more weakness. But the potential weakness only affects the empire in the here-and-now inasmuch as it causes imperialists to become circumspect and modest. That is not happening. We know it is not because there is an exception to the rule, and that is Zbigniew Brzezinski. He wrote an article this year calling for caution and realignment. However, he is claiming that the US empire is already dead (which could be seen as disingenuous) and that a global realignment has to occur in which Russia and/or China are incorporated. He is basically advocating a global carve-up of the world and his can even be read as an appeal to take substantive control of China and Russia in order to dominate parts of the globe through them (in the same manner that occupied post-WWII Japan was used as a sub-hegemon in East Asia).
Brzezinski is clearly not being 100% honest either. He makes a transparently fake denunciation of “the current inclination of the Saudi government still to foster Wahhabi fanaticism”. Once the obvious lie is removed he is clearly saying that SA (which used to just buy US weapons and not use them) should continue in its new-found warmongering role.
Perhaps Brzezinski is genuinely worried about continued unipolar expansion, and that is what makes him an exception, but his answer is to a problem of empire is more imperialism: a controlled US dominated delegation of power to subordinates: “the United States must take the lead in realigning the global power architecture”. Nevertheless Mike Whitney seized on Brzezinski’s article with glee at the arch-imperialist giving up on empire, and I think he represents a broader tendency to want to see the empire as crumbling. But even if one imperialist did give up on empire, it isn’t much to get excited about it. Moreover, if “giving up on empire” comes in the form of saying that the US should create an new New-World-Order, then I would hate to see what expansionism looks like.
Besides all of that, none of this is new for Brzezinski, and a veteran like Mike Whitney should have remembered that this echoes Brzezinski’s stance from 2006, especially since Whitney quoted him in 2007: “American power may be greater in 2006 than in 1991, (but) the country’s capacity to mobilize, inspire, point in a shared direction and thus shape global realities has significantly declined. Fifteen years after its coronation as global leader, America is becoming a fearful and lonely democracy in a politically antagonistic world.” In fact Brzezinski had much the same stance in 2000 when he published The Geostrategic Triad advocating “The progressive inclusion of Russia in the expanding Transatlantic”. He wanted the US to rule in conjunction with partners dominated by it. The details in his latest article are different (China promoted, Europe demoted, Russia matured), but the essence is the same, a unilateral imperialism that calls itself multilateral and pretends to be pragmatic by being thoroughly overtly repugnant in the name of realism.Having seen many excited tweets about Brzezinski’s putative turn against empire, I think it is a good case study on which to end. It shows how we fool ourselves, seeking the easiest signs of hope and progress when the outlook is actually daunting and scary. We cannot see what lies ahead. We could be on the cusp of something great or something horrific or a long hard slow battle which we might not win. At the moment we have little control over such things. Any attempt to take a shortcut because of some will-o-the-wisp is counterproductive. We have been dealt a crappy hand, but that is what we have to live with because the masses are unreachable and will remain so until dissidents can offer a coherent comprehensive alternative to empire. That is why Srnicek was correct in his prescription, even if his diagnosis was a bit off.
To paraphrase Gramsci, what we need is accuracy of the intellect and sufficiency of the will, in that order.
Yemen is being destroyed. A US-backed “Saudi Coalition” has been bombing and shelling Yemen for 16 months. The UN puts the civilian death toll at 3700, but (aside from the question of why combatants’ lives apparently only count if they are Western soldiers) this probably vastly under-represents the death toll by both direct violence and by the indirect effects of the war. Most of the country has no reliable access to clean water and people, particularly young children, are dying of disease and deprivation.
On August the 22nd, two eminent commentators gave interviews on Yemen. Harper’s magazine editor Andrew Cockburn (author of a book on drone assassinations called Kill Chain) was interviewed on Democracy Now! Later in the day Medea Benjamin (prominent activist co-founder of Code Pink and also author of a book on Drone Warfare) was interviewed on KPFA’s Flashpoints.
Cockburn and Benjamin were in complete agreement about two very important facts. This first is that this is a US war. As Cockburn wrote in a Harper’s piece:
Thousands of civilians – no one knows how many – have been killed or wounded. Along with the bombing, the Saudis have enforced a blockade, cutting off supplies of food, fuel, and medicine. A year and a half into the war, the health system has largely broken down, and much of the country is on the brink of starvation.
This rain of destruction was made possible by the material and moral support of the United States, which supplied most of the bombers, bombs, and missiles required for the aerial onslaught. (Admittedly, the United Kingdom, France, and other NATO arms exporters eagerly did their bit.)
The second important fact is that Saudi violence is is targeted against civilians and civilian infrastructure. To quote Cockburn again: “They’ve destroyed most of the health system. They destroyed schools. Human Rights Watch did an excellent report pointing out that they’ve attacked—consistently attacked economic targets having nothing to do with any kind of war effort, but like potato chip factories, water bottling factories, power plants. It’s an effort to destroy Yemen. And … we are part of that. This is our war, and it’s shameful.”
The type of warfare Cockburn is describing, systematic violence against a national group and systematic destruction of a nation-state, is exactly what was meant by Raphael Lemkin when he coined the term “genocide” (as you can read for yourself here) and it is clearly covered by the UN Convention against genocide which prohibits any intentional destruction “in whole or in part” of a national group by:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
I will return to the significance of the concept of genocide in due course, but there is a third very significant thing on which Benjamin and Cockburn agree, and that is that the US motive in participating is to make money. In response to Kevin Pina’s opening question as to why the US is involved, Benjamin answered: “That’s a pretty simple one: money; greed; US weapons industries. The Saudis have become the number 1 purchaser of US weapons.” In this case, however, I must vehemently disagree with Benjamin and Cockburn (and on this subject it often feels like I’m disagreeing with the entire Western world). Blaming greed, or the power of profit, is a dangerous delusion. If opposition to permanent warfare continues to be dominated by this trope then we will never be able to end these ongoing massacres. Nor, for that matter, will we be able to halt the war on the domestic front – the intrinsically linked increase in militarisation, surveillance, and state violence (actual and potential) that is the other side of the permanent warfare coin.
There are many things that make me angry about the wide-held belief that US foreign policy is shaped by the profit motive. It is facile; it is intellectually cowardly; it is self-defeating; it is chauvinistic (or more specifically Usacentric) and thus unavoidably racist; and it is embarrassingly credulous. Nicholas J S Davies recently published an excellent article on the “normalisation of deviance” which causes US foreign policy elites to embrace a worldview of vast cognitive dissonances, in which realities of illegal and inhumane US practices are subsumed (and thus made possible) in the oceanic assumption of fundamental existential US benevolence, benevolence of US purposes, and benevolence of US intents. My contention is that Benjamin, Cockburn, and others I shall name are part of a constrained and disciplined dialectic of opposition that condemns the individual dissonant actions but actually accommodates and reinforces the US exceptionalist worldview that creates the “normalisation of deviance”.
There are two things that are very crucial to understand. One is that the US exceptionalist worldview is hegemonic throughout the West and, to a lesser extent, globally. What this means is that when judging the actions of the US government we project our own self-image onto imagined or real agents (such as the US President). We assume that the motives behind their actions are sane and rational and not malevolent in intent (unlike those of demonised enemy leaders who are often assumed to be acting out of irrational or diabolical intent). That is not to say that the claim is that US foreign policy is rational, but rather that irrationality is created by the system, while US leaders are personalised as rational beings who mean well in exactly the way that enemies of the West are personalised as irrational and/or malevolent in intent.
The second thing to understand is that without the widespread “normalisation of deviance” US military interventions would be impossible. Many US personnel would not follow the flagrantly illegal orders which they currently enact without a second thought. Other countries would not continue to cooperate with the US except when necessary and they would make war crimes prosecutions an unsurpassed priority of public and private diplomacy.
The idea that “war is a racket” and that wars are fought to line the pockets of profiteers is part of a tradition that comes out of an ideological consensus that is so widespread as to be nearly invisible. This is a materialist consensus between Marxists, liberals, conservatives, and others which embraces economic determinism (meaning roughly that economics shape society rather than society shapes economics). Note that Marxists often reject economic determinism as merely “vulgar Marxism”, but the fact remains that the very terminology of Marxism, much of which is used by non-Marxists, ensures that they remain shackled to that basic position. Free-market liberals, conservatives, neoliberals, and libertarians are ultimately just as tied to economic determinism, not least because they embrace the notion of capitalism which (as we tend to forget) comes from Marx. The point about this materialist consensus is that creates a common language in which people can intelligibly argue about the fine details of a fundamentally nonsensical construct. Disputants on both sides find that the path of least resistance lies in affirming the underlying orthodoxy and working with that, and the prefabricated arguments that come with it. The fatal flaw is that dissent becomes limited and impotent to affect change.
People who cite the military-industrial complex and profiteering as being a cause of US foreign policy often seem to be rather smug with what seem to me to be an unjustified sense of bravery and insight. I think people find it satisfying because they have the sensation of having pierced a veil, or having clambered over the thorny hedge that surrounds the a meadow of classroom platitudes. Such people, presumably, feel good about themselves for being clever. They will generally only be challenged by people who still cling to an even less tenable analysis so they need never interrogate these beliefs.
There is also a certain calculus of dissent. If you reject the mainstream view in the most obvious and easy fashion, you can be sure that you will have a cohort of like-minded semi-dissidents. However, if you then question and reject the easy critique, you will most likely find yourself isolated and deprived of the common language and shortcuts shared between the mainstream and semi-dissenting viewpoint. Usually someone will be quite young when they reject idealistic notions of politics and embrace a sense of amoral economic determinism and human greed or self-interest as driving forces behind the exercise of power. Once they have that conviction it will be a foundation on which rests all of their political analysis that they develop through life and thus it becomes an ingrained unexamined habit of thought.
However, when it comes to war, the centrality of profit/profiteering becomes a big problem. There are some exceptional circumstances, such as the interests of US financiers in World War I, in which powerful individuals may have a strong profit-motive that leads them to agitate for war. On the whole, however, wars do not create wealth, they destroy wealth. Some interests may profit, but fighting wars will reduce overall profits (except in as much as they may allow an upward redistribution of wealth through the disbursement of tax money and government bond money (which is the tax money of future generations)).
In the US context people may mistakenly believe that they have a more robust analysis than “war is a racket” because they can cite the existence of the military-industrial complex. The problem with that is that is presumes that the military-industrial complex just created itself. On Waatea 5th Estate, for example, Henry Rollins opened an interview by explaining the whole thrust of US politics since Reagan as being caused by the needs of the military-industrial-complex and the prison-industrial-complex. In fairness, he did go on to show that he understood the prison-industrial-complex to be a dynamic mechanism (situated in history) for reproducing the racialised “caste” system that subjugates African Americans. However, he shows no such insight into the military-industrial complex, though its historical roots are, if anything, more strikingly functional than those of the prison-industrial complex. The prison-industrial complex exists to maintain a domestic social order through violent subjugation and the military-industrial complex exists to maintain imperial hegemony and an international social order through even greater violence and subjugation.
The term “military-industrial complex” was coined by Dwight Eisenhower at the end of 8 years in the White House. The forerunners of the complex can be seen in the British Empire. Thus, in trying to diagnose the British Empire at the end of the 19th century, John A. Hobson noted that the Empire was an economic drain, but that it benefited “certain sectional interests”. He specified that these interests were the finance sector plus “the shipbuilding, boiler-making, and gun and ammunition making trades”. In those days of British naval supremacy shipbuilding and boiler-making were the equivalent of the aerospace industry in the US today. Hobson, like today’s aficionados of the military-industrial complex, treated the whole thing as if it were some sort of scam – an unfair and vastly disproportionate way of fleecing the British people and the colonies. But the disproportionality itself showed that profit could not be a driving factor. Why, after all, would wealthy landowners and traders sacrifice their own wealth, as Hobson claimed, for sectional interests? If those interests had taken control of policy, why and how?
The key to understanding this “empire complex”, as I will call it, is that these “certain sectional interests” were, alongside the military and some other parts of the British state structure, the governing structures of the Empire (and the informal empire). This rose from a deliberate blurring of the lines between state and private power. For example, in Century of War F. William Engdahl writes of 3 “pillars of the British Empire” (finance, shipping and control of natural resources) and gives this example of interpenetration between private interests, government and British intelligence:
Britain modelled its post-Waterloo empire on an extremely sophisticated marriage between top bankers and financiers of the City of London, Government cabinet ministers, heads of key industrial companies deemed strategic to the national interest, and the heads of the espionage services.
Representative of this arrangement was City of London merchant banking scion, Sir Charles Jocelyn Hambro, who sat as a director of the Bank of England from 1928 until his death in 1963. During the Second World War, Hambro was Executive Chief of British secret intelligence’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the Government’s Ministry of Economic Warfare, which ran war-time economic warfare against Germany, and trained the entire leadership of what was to become the postwar American Central Intelligence Agency and intelligence elite, including William Casey, Charles Kindelberger, Walt Rostow and Robert Roosa, later Kennedy Treasury Deputy Secretary and partner of Wall Street’s elite Brown Brothers, Harriman.
The US military-industrial complex took things further than its British forerunner. When Eisenhower gave his famous warning about the “military-industrial complex” he was referring to something with long historical roots and antecedents, but nevertheless he was referring to something new; something only a decade old. In earlier drafts of Eisenhower’s farewell address it was referred to as the “military-industrial-Congressional complex”. In retrospect it was unfortunate that the word “Congressional” was omitted, because he nature of Congressional involvement shows a level of premeditated planning. Military contracts were distributed to every possible Congressional district so that every representative would be vulnerable to losses of jobs and income in their district. Politicians were being deliberately tied to the complex, so that it would be possible to either direct or replace any who spoke out against the interests of the complex. This was all happening at the time when NSC-68 became policy, creating what we know as the Cold War.
NSC-68 was a policy document signed by President Truman in 1950. It halted the post-WWII demobilisation of the USA and put the country on a permanent wartime footing. Though top secret, the 58 page document is stuffed full of propaganda that painted a fictitious picture of the USSR as a military threat to the USA. It states: “The Kremlin regards the United States as the only major threat to the conflict between idea of slavery under the grim oligarchy of the Kremlin … and the exclusive possession of atomic weapons by the two protagonists. The idea of freedom, moreover, is peculiarly and intolerably subversive of the idea of slavery. But the converse is not true. The implacable purpose of the slave state to eliminate the challenge of freedom has placed the two great powers at opposite poles. It is this fact which gives the present polarization of power the quality of crisis.” NSC-68 is full of fake figures and outright lies about Soviet capabilities. The document was probably not intended to persuade lawmakers and administrators as much as it was to give them a Party-line and talking points. These were words, phrases and arguments that could sell a new brand of USA to the people living in the USA itself and the strongest dissenting voices were soon silenced by McCarthyism.
Military spending tripled in the three years after NSC-68. An armistice was signed in Korea in 1953, but the military spending remained at wartime levels, and has never significantly decreased since.
The military-industrial complex was purposefully given a lever to control Congress and this tells us something about the intentionality of its creation, but I must point out that the complex has other levers to pull. Like other big industries which rely on government contracts and/or a lucrative legislative and policy environment, the private interests in the complex spend vast amounts on lobbying and campaign donations. This alone gives them “unwarranted influence” far in excess of what Eisenhower might have envisaged (at least in the fact that that influence is ineradicable by any means short of revolution). It gets even worse, however, because elected officials in the US are heavy investors in weapons and aerospace, and House and Senate members are not prohibited from insider trading. Between 2004 and 2009 19 of 28 members of the Senate Armed Services committee held stock in companies to which they could award contracts. They are only: “precluded … from taking official actions that could boost their personal wealth if they are the sole beneficiaries.”
The circle of venality tying politicians to the military-industrial complex works through bonds of greed and self-interest, but it has nothing to do with the profit mechanisms of “capitalism” as it is usually conceived. The complex was partly the product of historical processes shaped by power relations, but more importantly it was a conscious artifice. At the same time that food companies were developing the “TV Dinner”, US political elites created a TV Dinner military hegemony which went with a new TV Dinner empire. They pulled back the foil on their instant empire by announcing the doctrine of Cold War “containment”. Modelled on the 19th century “Monroe Doctrine”, by which the US gave itself the right to intervene in any Western hemisphere country, “containment” meant that any time the US had the power and desire to intervene they would simply claim that there was a Communist threat.
The military-industrial complex was created to tie government to the project of empire, however it did not remain static once created. Because this is an empire, success within the system is not determined by market forces, as much as market forces are twisted, wrangled and beaten into a shape that feeds the semi-private arms of imperial power. They are profitable, but that is incidental.
Both the military-industrial complex and the prison-industrial complex are subsumed within a greater empire complex. This model of government corruption (campaign financing, lobbying, revolving door appointments, intellectual property legislation, no-bid contracts, cost-plus contracts, bail-outs, etc.) creates a whole class of industries that are co-dependent with government. These are not random concerns, they are tied together by a shared characteristic. Such industries include arms; aerospace; finance; agribusiness; pharmaceuticals; health; oil and energy; infrastructure; media and communications; and security/policing/prisons/mercenaries. What ties them together is that whoever controls these things controls nations and peoples.
The imperial complex creates a situation where it becomes inevitable that the business of empire is empire, and nothing else unless it is in the service of empire. The government of the USA is so integral to the empire complex that, in foreign policy, it is purely devoted to the extension and maintenance of imperial power. In fact, the model of governance imposed on the empire by the public-private branches of the empire complex, widely known as “neoliberal”, increasingly provides the model of domestic governance. The US is colonising itself. The empire complex has evolved to control, not to build, nurture or protect. Like empires of the past, it has become the tool of a narrow elite whose interests are not truly tied to the motherland any more tightly than they are to the colonies.
This brings me back to the claim that the US is behind the bombing in Yemen because it feed the profits of the military-industrial complex. The claim is 100% wrong. None of this is for profit. It was a system intentionally constructed to maintain and extend imperial hegemony. It’s subsequent evolution has not in any way made it capitalistic, but has alarmingly broadened and deepened the governance structures.
There is an underlying assumption by Cockburn, Benjamin and other such critics of US foreign policy that the money factor has perverted foreign policy from its true course. This implies that uncorrupted by money (and nefarious foreigners) US foreign policy would revert to being a largely benevolent practice directed by concern with national security, the national interest, and the prosperity of the homeland. The frustrating thing about this is that it is a complete refusal to simply attempt to analyse an empire (which many critics US foreign policy gladly admit that it is) as an empire. It is sad that trenchant critics of wars (and the bloodthirsty elites who wage them) are stuck with such a childish mentality. They evince a faith that the proper purpose of the system itself is akin to that of a parent (whether loving or stern) and that Dad just needs to sober up from the intoxication of money.
Most critics of US foreign policy assume that it is a dysfunctional branch of nation-state politics, rather than even entertaining the idea that it might be a very rational and functional arm of imperial politics. For example, they assume that provoking terrorism against US interests and people is a failure of policy, but there are no concrete reasons for believing this. In contrast, one can argue that the US provokes terrorism on purpose in order to justify foreign interventions and erosions of civil liberties. That is a reasoned position that explains US actions with a clear motive. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with it, but let us consider conventional assumption that provoking terrorism is a mistake. In that case the contention is that an observed repeated pattern of behaviour (the various violent provocations such as invasions, bombings, torture, kidnappings) is a continual series of errors due to systemic dysfunction. To support this you must create a complex analytical apparatus showing that some essentialist cultural characteristics (a blend of ignorance, arrogance, and the desire to do good) cause US officials and personnel to keep repeating the same mistakes and never learn their lesson. All of this, a massive offence against the principle of parsimony, rests on the assumption that there can be no intent to foment terrorism because those same officials and personnel are collectively inclined to protect Usanians and US interests. This all falls down though, in the very obvious fact that the US government only protects US citizens when forced to. In the policies environment, public health, health, economy, trade, infrastructure, civil defence and (let us not forget) foreign intervention the US government shows that it will happily sacrifice the lives of its citizens. Terrorism deaths are a drop in the bucket compared to those caused by the insufficient healthcare in the US. Moreover, if you pre-ordain that non-interventionism and demilitarisation are not allowable foreign policy options, then you will not allow a policy that keeps people safe from terrorism. In practical terms that is a conspiracy to foment and harness terrorism for foreign interventions because the results are foreseeable and unavoidable.
Accompanying the infuriating belief that the natural state of Western governance is enlightened self-interest is the more repugnant and hypocritical belief that non-Western foreigners act in ways that need no explanation other than their hatred, brutality, and irrational violence. We endless ask ourselves where the US went “wrong” over various acts of mass violence, but no one feels the need to agonise about what part of the Qatari national character causes them to keep making the “mistake” of thinking they can bomb terrorism out of existence. The only analysis you need put forward is that they hate Iran, or hate Shi’a or (if you are really sophisticated) hate republicanism, then there is not need to explain why this translates into bombing or invasions or torture or any form of violence. When non-Westerners commit such acts it is treated as no more remarkable than the sun rising.
When Saudi Arabia bombs Yemen with US weapons, few entertain the notion that the Saudi Arabia might be acting as a US proxy, even though the US must approve enough to keep supplying the bombs. Instead we have a frankly racist discourse that suggests that Saudi Arabia is by some means dragging the US into a conflict in contravention of US interests. This whole “tail-wags-dog” trope really pisses me off. The US has been using the supposed rebelliousness and truculence of its puppets as an excuse for its actions going at least as far back as Syngman Rhee, the dictator they installed in South Korea after WWII. Everywhere that they possibly can, the US installs leaders who are unpopular enough with their own people that they are dependent on the US military to stay in power. That is how you run an empire. Sometimes it is in the US interest that such people make a show of anti-imperialist defiance, but when they really are defiant they tend to find themselves exiled, dead or imprisoned in fairly short order.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, an oligarchy of royals rules in defiance of the public will and the public interest. That is the classic recipe for a client regime, and probably differs little from a standard Roman client regime 2000 years ago. Iraqi-American analyst BJ Sabri has been posting a multi-part analysis of Saudi subjugation for over some months and argues that Saudi dependency is very deep, perhaps unusually so. In Part 2 of the series Sabri wrote:
On one side, we have the Saudi deference to the United States. I view this deference as follows: (1) confluence and reciprocal opportunism of two different but oppressive ideologies —Wahhabism and imperialism; (2) oil and petrodollars, and (3) a long history of secret deals—since the day Franklin D. Roosevelt met Abdul Aziz Al Saud in 1945. On the other, we have a supremacist superpower that views Al Saud as no more than a backward tribal bunch whose primary function is providing special services to the United States. These include cheap oil, buying US weapons, investing oil money in the US capitalistic system, supporting US hegemonic quest, buying US national debt, and bankrolling its covert operations and wars.
To drive the point, I argue that the combination between lack of means, lack of resistance, and other forms of dependence (US political and public relations support, for example) has created a situation of dependency. It incrementally forced the Saudi regime into a mental subordination to the United States similar to an occupied mentality.
Of course, others will tell you that the US must be acting at the behest of Saudi Arabia because they have no motive of their own. As Cockburn reports, “no one that I talked to in Washington suggested that the war was in any way necessary to our national security. The best answer I got came from Ted Lieu, a Democratic congressman from California who has been one of the few public officials to speak out about the devastation we were enabling far away. ‘Honestly,’ he told me, ‘I think it’s because Saudi Arabia asked.’”
When people like Cockburn make reference to “our national security” as if it were a factor in US military interventions I have to check that I haven’t been whisked to a parallel dimension. When has US national security ever been a consideration in a US decision to attack another country? This is the most interventionist state in the history of humanity and from an historical perspective the only differentiation in terms of national security is whether the US government puts a lot of effort into lying about having a national security interest (e.g. Viet Nam, Cambodia, Korea, Iraq); puts on a minimal or pathetic show (e.g. Grenada, Laos, Syria, Libya); or doesn’t really bother with the pretence at all (e.g. Haiti, Somalia, Panama).
Implying that a given US military intervention is aberrant because not does not serve national security is gross intellectual cowardice. It is a way of critiquing US policy without ever suggesting that the US might itself be worthy of criticism. Notions of exceptionalism are not challenged but rather are enforced by the implication that each act of mass violence is a departure from an unspoken norm. These are criticisms that sanitise and conceal US agency and intentionality by using the equivalent of the passive voice.
Gareth Porter is a fine critic of US policy when it comes to challenging the lies of officials who are gunning for war. He has written extensively to debunk the nuclear scare tactics used by US officials to threaten war against Iran and to impose cruel sanctions. But Porter is also an exponent of this passive voice historiography. His 2005 book Perils of Dominance documented the fact that the US had an unassailable strategic hegemony and lied to create the impression that the USSR was a threat to national security. It is a very useful book (although I would dispute his exculpation of Lyndon Johnson), but the way Porter frames facts, indeed the central “thesis” of the book, is that not having any genuinely security fears caused the US to invade Viet Nam. It is rather like framing a story of spousal abuse by focussing on the fact that the perpetrator was induced to beat the victim because of a large difference in size and strength.
The reason I bring Porter up is because in a recent interview with Lee Camp he said we need to go beyond the military-industrial complex and look at the “national-security complex” and the “permanent war state”. At first glance you might think that he and I were on the same wavelength, but despite admitting to long years of “committing the liberal error of opposing the war, but not the system”, he refuses to relinquish his central delusion. He reprises the same analytical framework that was very common after the US withdrew from Viet Nam under titles like Quagmire Theory or Stalemate Theory. The idea is that bureaucratic systems running on their own logic become the determinants of foreign policy. This allows people like Arthur Schlesinger (himself an official under Kennedy) to state that the war in Indochina was “a tragedy without victims” and talk of “the politics of inadvertence”. This apologism can be seen in book titles on US war that emphasise benign intent or lack of agency such as Nobody Wanted War, or the book by one of the US officials who help destroy Iraq whose lame excuse is We Meant Well.
Discussing Syria (though it could just as well be Yemen) Porter says US actions point to “the total inanity and irrationality of US policy”. This is the critique of someone who wants to go on record as opposing US warmongering but wants the least possible challenges and repercussions for doing so. It resonates easily with people, but it simply does not hold up to any intellectual examination. US aggressions, as Porter admits, fit a pattern of behaviour, so are they irrational? Irrational would imply self-defeating, but the US has been destroying countries, Balkanising them, destabilising them, killing and impoverishing in many places. They have created an ever-lengthening string of failed or near-failed states in actions so momentous that they have created the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. Why would irrationality be so consistent and have such a strong impact?
I do not have the time and space here to detail the intrinsic links between genocide and imperialism here, but let us not be unnecessarily stupid and deny that empires profit from Balkanising, partitioning and destroying countries that are strategically inconvenient. That is well established as part of history, and there is no reason at all to think that the US should be any different. The US empire, despite its internally generated weakness and contradictions, goes from strength to strength in foreign policy. The USSR is gone and NATO is on Russia’s border. China is besieged by the “Pacific pivot” and the TPP. Independent nationalist regimes that reject the neoliberal “Washington Consensus” (which is the surrender of economic sovereignty to the US empire) have been picked off one by one. In global terms the US has never been more powerful.
How many times do we need to see the same intentional destruction of a country and its people by the US before we call it what it is – genocide. This is intentional destruction of “nations and peoples” and it is exactly what the term genocide was coined to describe.
The US empire is hollowing itself out. As it fails internally it will be ever more driven to impose control globally. As the 2016 Presidential campaign enters its crucial stage, we are entering the most dangerous period of history since the Cold War. We cannot afford to cling to delusions. We need to oppose US wars; evict US military bases; end mass surveillance and intelligence co-operation; reject neoliberalism and pro-corporate trade deals; and we need to reject the propaganda and discourse of US exceptionalism and apologism. When I say “we”, I mean every single person on the planet (including people in the US itself). The empire has to be beaten back on all fronts, because otherwise there are two horrific options: either it collapses, or worse still it doesn’t.
In Part 1 of this article I argued that the 2016 US presidential race is the Alien vs. Predator election. The joke, which is at the expense of everyone on this planet, is that they are both aliens and both predators. Many ordinary people understand the situation perfectly well. A South Carolina real estate billboard shows Trump and Clinton and reads: “Moving to Canada? We can sell your home.” Even a month ago you could read this Onionesque headline at The Hill: “Poll: 13 percent prefer meteor hitting earth over Clinton, Trump”. It is even heard “out of the mouths of babes”. My 11 year-old daughter and her friend just told me a joke they heard in school:
Q: Clinton and Trump are together in a plane crash, who survives?
Many ordinary US folks get it. They understand. Some may grit their teeth and vote for Clinton, but most people do not have positive feelings about her. A small number of others feel the same about Trump and argue that he is actually the lesser evil. I will return to that subject later.
Clinton and Trump are much more similar to each other than they are to any ordinary mortals. The Clintons are estimated to be worth $110 million in wealth. Trump is clearly also obscenely rich (even if it is partly delusional). It is widely known that Ivanka Trump and Chelsea Clinton are friends, but Bill and Donald are much closer than people think. In 2012 Clinton said of Trump: “I like him. And I love playing golf with him,” and Trump called Clinton “a really good guy”.
The other link between Bill and Donald is their mutual friend, the paedophile billionaire Jeffrey Epstein. It is very important, if indirect, evidence that Clinton and Trump inhabit an elite sociopathic world where ordinary people’s lives are insignificant and expendable. People might think I am making the following stuff up, so I will simply quote from named news sources:
Daily Wire: “Both presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and former President Bill Clinton have ties to convicted pedophile and Democratic donor, billionaire Jeffery Epstein and ‘Sex Slave Island.’”
Fox: “Former President Bill Clinton was a much more frequent flyer on a registered sex offender’s infamous jet than previously reported, with flight logs showing the former president taking at least 26 trips aboard the “Lolita Express” — even apparently ditching his Secret Service detail for at least five of the flights, according to records obtained by FoxNews.com.
…The tricked-out jet earned its Nabakov-inspired nickname because it was reportedly outfitted with a bed where passengers had group sex with young girls…”
New York magazine: “’I’ve known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy,’ Trump booms from a speakerphone. ‘He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.’” [This is from 2002. The investigation leading to Epstein’s conviction for child-sex offences began 3 years later.]
VICE: “In 2010, Epstein pled the Fifth when asked by a lawyer representing one of Epstein’s victims about his relationship with Trump: ….
Q. Have you ever socialized with Donald Trump in the presence of females under the age of 18?
A: Though I’d like to answer that question, at least today I’m going to have to assert my Fifth, Sixth, and 14th Amendment rights, sir.”
Epstein was also allegedly involved as the procurer of the 13 year-old who was allegedly raped by Trump in Epstein’s apartment. As both Lisa Bloom and Drew Salisbury point out, these are not accusations that can be dismissed out of hand.
Hillary Clinton cannot wash her hands of Bill’s record of sexual violence, in part because her denials have helped him escape the consequences. Particularly damaging is Juanita Broaddrick’s belief that Hillary tried to ensure her silence after Bill almost certainly raped Broaddrick in 1978. The National Review reports: “Juanita Broaddrick’s claim was supported by not one but five witnesses and a host of circumstantial (though no physical) evidence.” The allegation seems difficult to deny because Broaddrick never voluntarily came forward. Rather, she was served with a subpoena and then taped without her knowledge after years of rumours. Hillary’s approach to this has been to brazen it out in a frankly Trumpian show of denial: “On December 3, a couple of weeks after Clinton tweeted, ‘Every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported, ‘a woman at an event in Hooksett, New Hampshire, asked, ‘Secretary Clinton, you recently came out to say that all rape victims should be believed. But would you say that Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey and Paula Jones be believed as well?’ Clinton replied, ‘Well, I would say that everyone should be believed at first until they are disbelieved based on evidence.’ The audience applauded.”
These rape allegations are symptomatic of an aristocratic system in which Marie Antoinette would feel at home. Epstein, for example, received a secret “sweetheart” non-prosecution deal from the FBI and only served 13 months. There is no equality under the law and many ordinary people are becoming acutely conscious of the divide between Us and Them.
A good argument can be made that voting for Trump or Clinton is essentially exactly the same thing. They are friends, peers, comrades and co-conspirators. Trump puts on a good show of dirty negative campaigning, but remember that this guy really does come from the entertainment world and even from pro-wrestling. His CV includes “body-slamming, beating and shaving” WWE owner Vince McMahon, and anyone who doesn’t at least entertain some doubts about the sincerity of his campaigning trash-talk is simply refusing to see what is in front of them. It is possible that this invective is just his natural way of being, but if that is true then he isn’t actually sincere in anything he does. The only question is whether he remains friends with the Clintons after this campaign.
We have now reached a point where both of these super-rich aristos are campaigning for the votes of the working class. Trump knows that he gets far more votes campaigning against trade liberalisation than he does by pushing xenophobia, and it was a key component of his recent speech in Detroit (though he did promise jobs to “titties like… Detroit” instead of “cities”). But he mixed “fiscal conservative” tax-cut rhetoric with anti-trade-deal rhetoric in a way that was unconvincing. Trump runs as an outsider and a maverick, but so has every Republican candidate since 1996. He decries Clinton as a creature of Wall St., but his own economic team includes several billionaires including financier John Paulson.
In essence Trump and Clinton also have identical stances on the TPP, a point that should give as much pause to Clinton supporters as to Trump supporters. Tim Kaine, who went against most Senate Democrats in support of TPP “fast-track” authority and defended the decision hours before being nominated as VP candidate, stands out because his flip-flop objections to the TPP (a transparent ploy to dilute the left-wing anger against his nomination) differ sharply from Trump and Clinton in that they reference unfairness in practical, ethical, and moral terms. Clinton’s TPP stance agrees with Trump’s and his implication that the problem with the TPP is that US negotiators were outsmarted and outmanoeuvred by us cunning foreigners with our underhanded slyness. Indeed, while some of us here in Aotearoa are wondering why our government is signing us up to a pact which will hurt and alienate our biggest trading partner (China), Trump is saying that the TPP “was designed for China to come in, as they always do, through the back door and totally take advantage of everyone.” The media don’t particularly care to highlight the fact, but Clinton has stuck to the same risible line: “We can not let rules of origin allow China — or anyone else, but principally China — to go around trade agreements. It’s one of the reasons why I oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership because when I saw what was in it, it was clear to me there were too many loopholes, too many opportunities for folks to be taken advantage of.”
Understanding the dynamics of these elections, and the ramifications of taking one stance or another, cannot be reduced to “candidate X says they support A and I support A, therefore I support X”, but our journalists and pundits are simply not capable of dealing with the reality of the politics we have to live with.
Broadcaster Paul Jay (who would much prefer Clinton as POTUS than Trump) put his finger on something when he observed that people should choose the lesser evil but “the problem is… they don’t call them the ‘lesser evil’; they start saying good things about them.”
Trump and Clinton are both vicious parasitic lifeforms too loathsome for people to bear in ordinary circumstances, but the people’s instincts are blunted and confuted by a journalistic and academic culture that gets stuck in half-think. Half-think, I should explain, is the process by which some people take the surface appearance of things and then apply fatuous received wisdom. Half-thinkers apply pre-fabricated generalities to any situation in order to make all things conform to an established ideology of complacent authoritarianism. Thus, when the common plebeians of Pompeii became alarmed by a smoking mountain and shaking ground they were probably reassured by one of their social betters: “Well actually, according the Greek authorities on such phenomena, belching is a healthy response for the human body and if the earth itself should belch it is surely a good omen. Quod erat demonstrandaaaaaaaah!”
Those who use half-think gain a sense of superior education and intellect, having gone past the mere vulgar issues of “plain fact” and “common sense”. However, this is no process of interrogation in which the half-thinker delves beneath the surface. It is an unthinking response that can be arrived at instantaneously, or sheltered behind over a long period. The half-thinker simply grabs onto any generality which they can pass off as being an educated insight in order to defend the status quo. That is to say that half-think is used to defend racism, inequality, war, state violence and so forth. It is fundamentally conservative in nature and often revolves around defending the indefensible because it is natural, unavoidable, part of human nature, or what anyone would expect of any “red-blooded male”.
I mention all of this because in times of political and social decadence and dysfunction, half-thinkers will always do their best to convince people that there is “nothing to see here”. Chris Trotter, who readers may remember from Part 1, has been employing the phrase politics is the “art of the possible” as a kind of snobby way of blocking his ears and going “lalalalala I’m not listening, I’m not listening lalalalala”. On one hand he is using a commonplace generality to assert something that he could never safely assert in specific reference to Clinton herself, and on the other hand, in doing so, he is performing the standard half-think trick of making remarkable things unremarkable.
I do agree with the half-thinkers on one thing, because they believe that there is nothing new under the sun. Where I differ from the half-thinkers is that for them this means: Western liberalism is the acme of civilisation; the people in charge are there for a reason; the police are doing their best in a difficult situation; North Korea is a rogue nation; ordinary people are dangerously stupid; Putin is a villain; our politicians mean well; you have to have a seat at the table to enact real change.
Half-thinkers like Trotter never examine their assumptions, they just use safety in numbers to avoid being challenged. They use their compatibility with power to keep real intellectuals at the margins.
In contrast to Trotter, Luciana Bohne, compares Clinton to Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha: “the one who chews broken bottles and kills rats with her teeth.” She casts Trump as Charybdis, “a huge bladder of a creature whose face was all mouth and whose arms and legs were flippers”, and Clinton as the Basilisk. “I’m raving, you say? This is the Age of Empire, and empire breeds monsters.”
Bohne’s imagery is extravagant because her eyes are open and the times demand it. Man-eating giants are striding the land stuffing screaming peasants in their maw by the handful, like so many jelly-babies, and people like Trotter are saying: “What giants? I can only see windmills and people have always been crunched up in windmill accidents. It is nothing new. Yelling about it will only cause more windmill deaths.”
Trotter wants us to be practical, but is his business-as-usual, vote-for-the-lesser-evil-then-appeal-to-her-progressive-principles actually practical? Or is it based on Panzaist delusions that turn a bloodthirsty mass-muderer into a well-meaning advocate of the rights of children? To counter cliché with cliché, is supporting Clinton the “art of the possible” or is it sticking your head in the sand?
Trotter doesn’t simply rely on the threat of Trump to argue that the US electorate should settle for Hillary, he also claims “This was the battle that Bernie won. As he told the Convention: ‘This is the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party!’ Yes, he endorsed Hillary, but in doing so he took care to bind her to that progressive platform with chains of rhetorical steel.”
In reality the platform is fatally flawed. Cornel West abstained from passing the platform because it did not oppose the TPP, acknowledge the occupation of Palestine as an occupation, or call for universal healthcare: “I have no other moral option”, he explained. Worse still, by stating “we will not hesitate to take military action if Iran violates the agreement”, the platform is advocating illegal aggression. The US has no right to take military action if Iran breaks its nuclear deal. Moreover the threat of a war with Iran horrifies most of the US public, particularly Democrats, so slipping a phrase like that in without mass protest shows how US exceptionalism and these “lesser evil” oligarchic politics create a massive and dangerous cognitive dissonance.
Even if the platform did have stronger and less ambiguous commitments, it is still nothing more than rhetoric. In the US system, there is no comeback for an administration or a caucus that does not abide by a platform. The platform means nothing. Obama entered his first term with Democrats in control of both houses of Congress so the 2008 Democratic platform should have been more binding than ever, right? Here are some of my favourite excerpts from that 2008 platform so you can judge for yourself:
* “We believe that the people of Puerto Rico have the right to the political status of their choice, obtained through a fair, neutral, and democratic process of self-determination. The White House and Congress will work with all groups in Puerto Rico to enable the question of Puerto Rico’s status to be resolved during the next four years.” [Under the Obama administration Puerto Rico has just been stripped even further of self-determination and been placed under similar governance to that which worked so well for Flint, Mi.]
* “We support equal rights to democratic self-government and congressional representation for the citizens of our nation’s capital.” [For the actual situation here is John Oliver’s rant]
* “We will close the detention camp in Guantanamo Bay,….” [No comment]
* “We support constitutional protections and judicial oversight on any surveillance program involving Americans.” [LOL]
* “Working together, we can cut poverty in half within ten years. We will provide all our children a world-class education, from early childhood through college.” [Data from Feb. 2015: “The official poverty rate is 14.5%, meaning 45.3 million people in the US live in poverty, up by over 8 million since 2008. An additional 97.3 million (33%) of people living in the United States are low-income, defined as incomes below twice the federal poverty line, or $47,700 for a family of four. Taken together, this means that 48% of the US population is poor or low income, 1 in every 2 people. More than 1 in 5 children in America (21.8%) are living under the official poverty line. Half of all children will be on food stamps before they turn 20, including 9 out of 10 African American children. ]
* “To renew American leadership in the world, we must first bring the Iraq war to a responsible end. … At the same time, we will provide generous assistance to Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons. We will launch a comprehensive regional and international diplomatic surge to help broker a lasting political settlement in Iraq, which is the only path to a sustainable peace. We will make clear that we seek no permanent bases in Iraq. We will encourage Iraq’s government to devote its oil revenues and budget surplus to reconstruction and development.” [The US just announced 400 more troops deploying to Iraq: “Last month, President Obama raised the “cap” on the number of ground troops in Iraq to 4,647. This cap has become something of a running joke, as the Pentagon has repeatedly admitted to having well more troops than that. Most recent estimates have over 6,000 US ground troops in Iraq already, before this new deployment.”]
The 2008 Democratic Party platform also promised to end nuclear weapons, whereas Obama has launched the biggest nuclear weapons programme since the Cold War. They promised to institute transparent government, but “transparency” and the FOIA system has become even more of a farce than under Bush II. Redactions are so commonplace and arbitrary that they release whole redacted pages that now have “redactions within redactions”, as if redacting something once is not enough any more.
So much for this year’s allegedly “progressive” platform, but we are still left with the major practical argument that supporting Clinton is necessary to stop Trump, even if she is not a desirable leader in her own accord. There are several important assumptions behind that which should be interrogated. One: can Trump win, and under what circumstances? Two: does supporting Clinton actually help stop Trump? Three: is Trump actually worse than Clinton? Four: balancing all these factors and more, what are the practical repercussions of supporting Clinton?
Like most people, I am frightened of what Trump might unleash on the world, but I have become much more relaxed on the specific subject of him winning the Presidency. All things being equal, Trump really doesn’t have a chance simply because this is a negative election (where the vote is decided on whom you most hate) and Trump alienates more people in swing states, while Clinton alienates people in populous safe Democrat states. In practical terms, as Rik Andino has pointed out, it is hard, if not impossible, to see a scenario in which Trump wins 50% of electoral college votes.
Since Clinton’s nomination, Trump is looking even less viable. In fact, with Clinton’s nomination it was as if a switch was thrown and suddenly the media that had previously made it seem that Trump could get away with murder, found his standard daily outrages now damaging and intolerable. Tellingly, it all began with him saying of Gazala Khan: “Maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me, but plenty of people have written that.” Suddenly this typical Trump comment was unacceptable, with news reports switching from telling people that Trump can say these things with impunity to running pompous features like this Guardian piece about how the dead “hero” Humayun Khan “could derail his campaign”.
Meanwhile, Trump has plummeted in the polls. Even previously safe Republican states , like Georgia, seem to be leaning towards Clinton. In Republican Arizona Clinton now leads in the polls. On the one hand this might seem to be expected in a state that is nearly 30% Hispanic, but on the other, Arizona has a history of supporting some extremely Trumpish policies including the notorious SB 1070 “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act”. This is widely felt to have encouraged racial profiling and was formally opposed by 11 other states, Mexico, large numbers of Obama administration officials and Obama himself, law enforcement heads, 68 national members of Congress, and dozens of human rights and civil liberties organisations. The state also banned successful Mexican-American studies programmes after Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal had been horrified to find that “they were portraying Ben Franklin as a racist”, and “they got a poster of Che Guevara.” Many books were banned from schools including important texts from James Baldwin, Isabelle Allende, and Howard Zinn along with Chicano writers that include some of the most important literary and scholarly figures in Arizona itself. They banned Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, and the novelist and professor Manuel Muñoz is banned in the school just across the street from where he lectures.
In Maricopa County, which is home to 4.2 million of Arizona’s 6.8 million population, SB 1070 was welcomed by 4 term “toughest Sheriff in America” Joe Arpaio. To call Arpaio controversial simply cannot do justice to his proven hatefulness, dishonesty, sadism, xenophobia (or crypto-racism), corruption and abuse of power. Arpaio is a Trump supporter who makes Trump himself seem like Mahatma Gandhi. I cannot detail his impressive record of lunacy, so I will take the unusual step of recommending this section of his Wikipedia page.
Arizonan’s have stuck with Arpaio through thick and thicker. They voted for a State Congress that banned hundreds of books from schools and a Senate that passed SB 1070. Yet they are turning away from Trump (perhaps they are also belatedly having qualms about their “tough” sheriff). It really doesn’t bode well for Trump’s bid for the White House.
There is also the question of how serious Trump is in his Presidential bid. From the beginning, on an escalator, his campaign has played out like a prolonged amateurish publicity stunt. A tax specialist who examined the possible reasons that Trump would continue to refuse to release his tax returns could only conclude: “Donald Trump will not publish his tax returns because he does not expect to be President, or at best has not internalized what becoming President actually entails. Trump’s tax return strategy is directed at a future in which he is not President, but is an even richer self-promoter.” More recently still, Representative André Carson (D-Ind.) claimed that Trump is “trying to sabotage himself to clear the way for President Clinton”: “It appears as if he knows he will not be the next President of the United States, so he’s trying to sabotage this thing because he’s not used to losing.”
Perhaps it is irrelevant whether Trump really wants to win or not. Trump is a threat and he has the potential to unleash violence upon the world, but it does not follow that supporting Clinton lessens that threat. As Kshama Sawant (a socialist city councillor from Seattle) suggested on Democracy Now!, if people to the left of Clinton give her their support out of fear, then they will drive masses of ordinary people into Trump’s camp. It is actually the politics of the lesser evil that have given us Trump. What is more Trump is not necessarily going anywhere.
If Trump is just playing a game, using extremist rhetoric to stampede people into the Clinton camp (like a sheepdog, but with rabies) then an electoral loss may or may not mean the end of Trump’s political career. If Trump is earnest, however, then everything we know about him suggests that he will not accept defeat in the way we have come to expect. Defeated major party Presidential candidates have a tendency to recede like clumps of rotting matter back into the roiling mire of party politics, thereafter surfacing occasionally or not at all. But Trump, if he is what he appears to be, will not accept defeat. He has repeatedly claimed in advance that the election will be rigged and one of his Republican Party supporters warned that there will be a “bloodbath” if he loses in November.
People are understandably concerned that Trump’s loaded language, such as his recent hint about “2nd amendment people” taking action, will inspire political violence, but let’s keep this in perspective: Trump may inspire some lone nutcases, but whoever is next President will be killing thousands of people with the US military.
The most tangible and certain fact about the Trump campaign is that his campaign is shifting the discourse of politics altogether. From that perspective it fits a long tradition of pushing rightwards, of increasing oversimplification, of increasing extremism, of increasing self-righteous chauvinism, and of decreasing empathy. It is a slow drift into what can best be described as a type of fascism. It is a one-way street, a ratchet system that can only go towards fascism and never away from it (though it may feature socially liberally aspects which are very different from historical fascism). The thing that makes this drift so certain and unremitting is the politics of the lesser evil. Democrat and Republican leaders have been playing Good Cop/Bad Cop since the Reagan years. The very logic of the lesser evil ensures that each new election cycle will see both greater and lesser evils being more evil than the last time around. We might worry about what Trump might hypothetically do if he takes office, but this is an effect that we know he is having. It is happening now and supporting Clinton only strengthens the shift towards a more encompassing and total fascism.
Not only does supporting Clinton empower Trump’s transformation of politics (bearing in mind that Trump and Clinton are merely the latest in a line of electoral double-acts), but some people see Trump as the lesser evil. Anthony Monteiro, for example, is an activist and African-American studies scholar linked to Black Agenda Report and Counterpunch: “His positions come as close to the working class as you’re going to get.” Talking to Don Debar and Glen Ford he says “he is to the left of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama….” He and others like him point out that Clinton is supported by the neoconservatives, Wall St., the military-industrial-complex, and appears much closer to overt plutocrats like the Koch brothers than Trump.
Those who see Trump as the lesser evil point out that Hillary Clinton is an undeniable war hawk, whilst Trump is an advocate of détente. Clinton has a public and undenianble track record of advocating, supporting, and committing war crimes that is far more significant from any perspective (including a feminist perspective) than Trump’s overt misogyny and probable history as a rapist. But then again, Trump is a monster, so treating him as the lesser evil is no more sensible than treating Clinton as the lesser evil.
Listening to Anthony Monteiro talk about Trump is exactly like listening to apologists for Clinton. The polemic follows exactly the same formula for either: Find the positive things and avoid testing them to see of they actually make sense; point out how scary the opponent is; state that there really are good reasons to treat the nicer rhetoric as substantive (like “chains of rhetorical steel”); find some reason to say that unlike the opponent this particular very rich powerful establishment figure is actually on the side of the common people; don’t mention the long public record that shows your candidate is against the common people (but do mention the corresponding record of the opposing candidate); et cetera.
In the end it is impossible to support Clinton or Trump in good conscience and that in itself is a practical consideration. Trump supporters should be aware of his extensive record of scams, lies and ties to organised crime. David Cay Johnston, for example, has been reporting on Trump for 27 years: he is not some stooge for the Clinton campaign; he isn’t protecting Wall St. from the new champion of Joe Lunchbox (quite the opposite really); he just reports that Trump has a long ongoing close working relationship with organised crime and reaches the conclusion (which is amply supported by evidence) that Trump is a dangerous “world-class narcissist”.
I am personally less interested in the individual character of a candidate than in the political dynamic that they create and that would result form their taking office. From that perspective Trump is terrifying. Almost everything that Trump says stokes anger. He is not only inflaming aggrieved white male entitlement syndrome, he is appealing to all who believe in US exceptionalism. He paints a picture of a noble and strong USA belittled and persecuted by inferior foreigners. This trope has historical roots from 19th century nationalism that continue through Fascism and Nazism. In the US context the conceit was a staple of the most violent hard-line Cold Warriors, but went mainstream under Ronald Reagan. Most relevant to Trump, however, was when it was used to justify one of the greatest war crimes of the 20th century by Richard Nixon – the invasion of Cambodia, which was followed by bombing that killed hundreds of thousands and is significantly responsible for the Khmer Rouge takeover and subsequent autogenocide. Nixon justified his act of aggression by saying that if the US “acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.”
Trump is openly Nixonian, which again suggests that he is not very serious about winning the Presidency. Aides avowed that Trump’s nomination acceptance speech was modelled on Nixon’s 1968 acceptance speech. There are many similar themes, but in fact Trump’s speech was far more alarmist and negative, and thus more inflammatory. The scariest thing for me is that Nixon’s speech was a launching pad for a campaign of right-wing authoritarian law-and-order at home combined with a crucial promise of “peace with honor” abroad. Trump 2016 and Nixon 1968 are part of a US tradition of loudly avowing peace in an election campaign when you are set on war. Other examples include Wilson’s 1916 slogan “He Kept US Out of the War” and Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 declaration “we are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves”. Nison’s “Peace with honor” meant 7 more years of war, in which millions died. Incidentally Nixon had recruited the Democrat and liberal Henry Kissinger (who was on LBJ’s staff at the time) to sabotage the 1968 Paris peace talks thus guranteeing more war.
Another war hawk who donned the election-year dove suit was George W. Bush. He opposed military over-commitment and nation building. He said, “I just don’t think it’s the role of the United States to walk into another country and say: ‘We do it this way, so should you!’” Trump has reprised Bush’s semi-isolationist pragmatic deal-maker rhetoric in its entirety. People seem to have forgotten that this was the platform on which Bush campaigned because he did exactly the opposite when he was in office but that should be a lesson about how we really need to view political rhetoric. Rhetoric has meaning, but it is not as simple as equating an expressed wish with an actual desiure or inclination. Sometimes it means exactly the opposite. In taking the same pragmatic dove stance (which does not reject chauvinist patriotism or exceptionalism) Trump is positioning himself exactly as Bush, Johnson, Wilson and Nixon did. He is stating a desire for peace in order to create political space to wage war.
Choosing between Trump and Clinton is a lot like choosing between Nixon and Kissinger. Clinton is unashamedly close to Kissinger and is rumoured to be seeking his endorsement. Clinton and Trump, by their positive referrals to the widely loathed Nixon and Kissinger, are showing how contemptuous they both are of ordinary people.
I tend to see Trump as more dangerous, but someone responded to my stance by pointing out that Clinton is more dangerous because she would have bipartisan support for waging war. In parliamentary terms (not in terms of public opinion) this is certainly true and may or may not become crucial to the future of the world. GOP senators and congressional representatives will support every military adventure, every increase in surveillance and secrecy, every assassination, every arms deal, and so forth. Like Tony Blair in the UK, the only legislative opposition that Clinton will face will come from a weak sub-group of her own party. So as well as being like the choice between Nixon and Kissinger, this election presents a choice akin to voting either for Tony Blair or George W. Bush: one is unstoppable because she has captured and controls the one party that might oppose her warmongering, the other is unstoppable because he has created the space to govern as a partisan rogue who is not subject to congressional restraint or restraint by public opinion.
In the final analysis, any acquiescence to Trump or Clinton is a grovelling surrender to a sick slave-master who is demanding that we eat a pile of steaming dog turds. People like Chris Trotter lick their lips at the prospect and expect us to do the same, but how can supporting for Clinton not be an act of self-debasement? The FBI, predictably, decided not to prosecute her even though it is clear from their account that they believe that she committed a serious crime, but their account contradicts what Clinton said on three occasions under oath. As Clinton will be aware, that perjury makes her eminently impeachable, which really should have ended her presidential run then and there. How can people be expected to vote for someone who could be impeached on the moment she takes office? Now she is involved in a “pay-to-play” scandal from her time in the State Department that, among other things, is the perfect example of why her attempt to keep her emails private was a serious crime. Clinton will enter office with a number of unresolved scandals that should disqualify her. The worst thing is that she will probably do so with impunity, revealing that she is above the law and that people like her can openly mock the law. To support Clinton is to support demockracy [sic] – the farce of elections that are used to legitimate an actual kakistocracy.
Chris Trotter recently compared Clinton to F. D. Roosevelt and claimed that the US role in Libya was just lending “support to British and French efforts in the UN Security Council to provide air support to Libyan rebels fighting Muamma Gaddafi.” He is coming very close to simple outright lying and seems completely unfazed by the masses of negative comments he receives and equally disinclined to answer any of the arguments and evidence presented within them.
I agree with Paul Jay that our best hope for the future is that Clinton becomes President, but then becomes the immediate focus for discontent and agitation. If we support Clinton (by “we” I mean those of us who know more than what is fed to us by a mendacious system of mass media) we will undermine our own future. Mumia Abu Jamal said “If Trump is the price we have to pay to defeat Clintonian neoliberalism – so be it.” I want to suggest that Trump is not likely to become POTUS and the we already pay the price of having Trump in our world. The real issue whether we are willing to risk an outside chance of a Trump presidency, or whether we will be self-defeating losers who let ourselves be spooked by the scary clown. People in the US and outside need to gear up to oppose the next President, whoever she may be.
Many Trump supporters are like Brexit supporters who, as Jonathan Pie pointed out, made an almost rationally irrational decision to choose a self-destructive hopeless gamble over the certainty of slow neoliberal degradation. They weren’t really being offered a choice, because the entire referendum was framed so that voting stay would be taken as an endorsement of the wider status quo. US voters are faced with a similar non-choice. Clinton’s election will be taken as a mandate for war, empire and neoliberalism. Moreover, if people do not make a show of rejecting both Trump and Clinton it will validate and consolidate the demockracy. It will be a watershed in the slow murder of democracy, perhaps not as irremediable as the 1932 Nazi electoral victory, but a definite goose-step in the same direction.
As a long-standing student of US history and wars, this election reeks to me of the election before a major war. I suspect that we will be tested by the next administration and our responses will write the future for us and our children. The distinction between war abroad and war at home has always been blurry and it looks like becoming much more so. The US is heading back into the Middle East at a time when conflict in the Middle East and North Africa is metastasising and consolidating into a single historic bloodletting.
It is time to ask the question, which side are you on? Supporting Trump could be hateful or delusional or simply the product of desperation, but supporting Clinton (even out of fear) is a clear endorsement of neoliberalism, neoconservatism and empire. Do you think that your hatred of Trump can justify supporting the killing of tens of thousands in the Middle East? the suffering of tens of millions as whole countries are slowly ground up and turned into failed states to maintain US hegemony? the immiseration of hundreds of millions as neoliberalism continues its march towards a nightmare future? If you choose Clinton, whether you are witting or only half-witting, you are the enemy of humanity.
In a post on Aotearoa’s The Daily Blog, a supposedly “leftist” blogger, Chris Trotter, took “Bernie’s die-hard supporters” to task for being “ridiculous”. He was endorsing Sarah Silverman’s words, but after some inconsequential waffle, he took it a bit further: “That makes the ‘Bernie or Bust’ crowd something much more than ridiculous, Sarah, it makes them dangerous.”
Trotter is not alone in this sentiment, but it is highly arrogant to presume to criticise without showing any insight or seeming to know much about the subject at all. Not only is the disruption and protest valid, the circumstances that lead them to it have a significance even broader than this US general election. Trump v. Clinton is the Alien vs. Predator election. Those who refuse to reject the two-party system agree that they prefer Predator, but they disagree about which candidate that is. Meanwhile a growing number of people, with varying levels of politeness, are trying to get them to realise that Alien and Predator are both aliens and both predators. But this predicament facing US voters is to some extent faced everywhere that neoliberalism holds sway, it is just more scary and funny when you put it in the deranged context of US electoral politics.
In my country, as fellow Kiwi Patrick Gower explained to Democracy Now!, we have a “morbid fascination” with the political rise of Donald Trump, but our media have been much kinder to Hillary Clinton. I can only liken the phenomenon to US news media reporting on Israel which is far more obsequious and uncritical than Israel’s own media. I don’t know why our media gloss over the faults, weaknesses, scandals and crimes of Clinton, but they do. They also followed a script in which Bernie Sanders was a wannabe spoiler, threatening to hand the USA over to Trump by prolonging his primary campaign and splitting the Democrats (a narrative similar to that in which Nader is blamed for giving the 2000 election to Bush).
In reality, if you look for them even from half a world away, there are clear reasons why Clinton is so unpopular with the people of the USA. In fact, she and Trump currently have equal pegging in dislike with both having “unfavourable” responses of 58% according to Gallup. No past Democrat or Republican candidate “comes close to Clinton, and especially Trump, in terms of engendering strong dislike.” In ordinary circumstances neither Clinton nor Trump would be electable with that level of public disdain. The very fact that either could become POTUS is purely because they face each other.
These are strange times. We should reflect on the fact that each party can afford to put forward such a loser of a candidate only because both parties are doing so at the same time. Polls clearly showed that Bernie Sanders would have been able to beat Trump overwhelmingly in the popular vote (despite the vagaries of the electoral college system, this is historically reliable as an indicator of who will win ). Even though they come many months before the election these polls are not just an irrelevance and they probably even understate the advantage Sanders would have had over Trump. Like Clinton, and unlike Sanders, Trump is embroiled in ongoing scandals (over taxes, business practices and child rape allegations) that would in ordinary circumstances have made a presidential campaign highly problematic. Moreover, his campaigning style is key to his base of supporters, but the same theatrics and incendiary rhetoric inevitably make most people dislike him all the more. The only thing that keeps Trump in the race is Clinton, and vice versa.
Instead of feeling entitled to lecture and scold from afar, Chris Trotter should have taken the time to engage with the substance behind the discontent of Sanders delegates (not to mention the masses of protesters on the streets of Philadelphia, far greater in number than those protesting the RNC in Cleveland). To be “ridiculous” or even “dangerous”, as Trotter claims, the dissident Democrats would have to have no grounds to contest the legitimacy of Clinton’s selection as Democratic presidential candidate, no grounds to contest the legitimacy of the dominance of the two main parties in the electoral process, and no grounds to reject Clinton as morally unacceptable and insupportable as an elected representative. On all three counts those who refuse to accept Clinton have very safe and justifiable grounds.
Clinton’s selection as candidate has been far from democratic. She did not, as Trotter claims, win “fair and square”. There is evidence of systematic fraud in the Democratic primaries (the source is not a peer-reviewed paper, but this Snopes article confirms that there is substance to the claims). Similar findings come from a more recent non-partisan report (written in collaboration with Fritz Scheuren, former President of the American Statistical Association). In addition there has been voter suppression, most significantly in the psychologically and politically important states of California and New York. Then there is the media bias against Sanders (not to mention CNN dramatically biasing the electorate on the eve of the California primary).
Moreover leaked DNC emails clearly show that the primary process was unfair. DNC officials on DNC time were conspiring against a candidate and, by extension, the democratic process itself. How could anyone in good conscience simply brush this off as unworthy of examination? How much these DNC officials biased the process may be up for debate, but the fact that they did cannot be questioned. They were acting in bad faith all along, and decisions such as when and where to debate seemed to favour the Clinton campaign throughout. Politifact fatuously claims that there is no evidence in the DNC emails that they set out to rig the debates, but it is clear that important DNC staffers were willing and able to work to get Clinton the nomination, and her weakness as an orator is well recognised. To ignore these impacts also reeks of bad faith.
Perhaps we should also consider the fact that one of the leaks from Guccifer 2.0 showed that DNC staffers were planning Clinton’s strategy against the GOP “field” of candidates in May of 2015. This means that as far as they were concerned Clinton was already the anointed presidential candidate of their party. They were right: even though Clinton is highly unpopular; had to fight off a Sanders insurgency; and has been plagued by scandals about DNC emails, her own emails, and an FBI investigation, they were right to presume that she would get the nomination. The implications of this are that democracy is not really a factor in Democratic primaries and that insiders do not expect it to be.
And then there is the role of money in US politics. In simple terms, Clinton was given a lot more money than Sanders. According to the BBC in March, Sanders had received large numbers of small donations, but Clinton’s money was mostly from large donations with the finance industry being a crucial source. I would call that undemocratic whichever way you cut it, and while money is so crucial to the US electoral process, it can never ever be called “fair and square”.
Even if the #NeverHillary people did not have every right to reject the Democratic primary process in itself, they would still have grounds to reject it as part of a greater undemocratic system that maintains a duopoly of political power. Third parties are systematically excluded from publicly visible politics by the corporate news media. Social media has allowed third parties make a small amount of headway, just as soapboxes and pamphlets once did for Populists and Socialists, but now, as then, it is far from a level playing field. There is a media “blackout” of third parties. This became an issue in 2012, and it will be an even bigger issue this time. Not only are they quantitatively biased, but there is a qualitative bias in the news media with mentions of third parties being dismissive, mocking or negative. If Trump wins, for example, you can be certain that they will use the spoiler argument about Jill Stein, even though the most clear and direct cause will be the alienation of voters by the DNC’s decision to put forward a right-wing corporate-linked hawkish Clinton-Kaine ticket. And then there is the money thing, because the big corporate interests and billionaire donors have a huge sway in US elections (because of “Citizens United”) and they don’t like independent parties.
Yet the two-party system has never looked more undemocratic, more ridiculous, nor more fragile. The Republican primaries have become some sort of freak show and the party itself seems to teeter on the edge of a descent into a comical mash-up where crass aspirational consumer capitalism collides with Fascism and Torquemada’s Spanish Inquisition. The Democrats, meanwhile, continue a process that dates back to 1968 (though it has changed somewhat) of carefully canvassing their support base to find who would best represent everything that epitomises Democrat ideals, and then trying their best to paint their pro-corporate elitist neoliberal candidate as being something like that person.
The chaos in both parties shows that the chronic malaise of democratic deficit that has been eating away at the US for decades, has entered a terminal phase. Chris Hedges, prophet of doom and hope par excellence, has changed his metaphorical placardbycrossing out “The End is Nigh!” and replacing it with “Told You So!”.
People have every right to reject Clinton’s selection and to disrupt this burlesque parody of a democratic process because it is demonstrably undemocratic and because their rights are being violated, but they also have a clear moral claim to reject and disrupt as a matter of conscience. Make no mistake that among other things Clinton is a grade A war criminal with the blood of thousands on her hands. Even as First Lady she took a key role in Operation Desert Fox (an air war, justified with blatant lies, which killed thousands of Iraqis). She was a key exponent of the Libya intervention which, after securing UNSC approval, immediately (and with clear premeditation) exceeded its legal mandate and became a regime change operation. That is the crime of waging aggressive war, the greatest war crime that there is. Libya has been turned into a nightmare that quite literally makes Ghadafi’s period of rule seem like a Golden Age of freedom and prosperity. As Eric Draitser reports, we can now confirm that accusations of atrocities against the Ghadafi regime were lies; that the US intent was always regime change; and that Libya is now a festering sore of instability, ethnic cleansing, terrorism, militia violence, political repression and economic disintegration.
Libya has also been used to ship arms and fighters to Syria, fuelling a civil war which has caused 250,000 deaths. Not only do these arms go to some very brutal people in their own right (from the FSA leader who bit into a dead enemy’s heart or lung in 2013 to the US-backed Islamists who posted video of themselves beheading a 12 year-old boy last week) but, predictably, they have also been a major source of arms for the self-proclaimed “Islamic State”. As for Clinton’s part, Jeffrey Sachs writes that “In 2012, Clinton was the obstacle, not the solution, to a ceasefire being negotiated by UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan. It was US intransigence – Clinton’s intransigence – that led to the failure of Annan’s peace efforts in the spring of 2012….” She supports current US airstrikes in Syria, such as that killed at least 28 civilians just this Thursday (only a week after a nearby strike killed at least 74 civilians). Because the Syrian government has not given permission, these airstrikes are themselves war crimes. Not only are acts such as this crimes, threatening such acts is itself a war crime. Therefore Clinton, who advocates imposing a no-fly zone on Syria, is both advocating and arguably committing a war crime as a central plank of her campaign. Given that military and diplomatic officials reject the plan as unworkable and irrational this is Clinton’s equivalent of Trumps’ wall except that it is also a war crime. She even has a bizarre “Mexico will pay” twist in that she has proposed “sharing” the no-fly zone with Russia. She should be pilloried, but she gets a free pass because people don’t understand what a no-fly zone is. This, in turn, is because they have intentionally been left in the dark in order that they think of a no-fly zone as a passive act, rather than what it is: a violent form of aggressive warfare that requires the destruction of all air defences on the ground as well as the destruction of aircraft.
Another country that owes much suffering and loss of life to Clinton is Honduras. After a coup there, as Adam Johnson of FAIR writes: “Fifteen House Democrats joined in, sending a letter to the Obama White House insisting that the State Department ‘fully acknowledge that a military coup has taken place and…follow through with the total suspension of non-humanitarian aid, as required by law.’ But Clinton’s State Department staunchly refused to do so, bucking the international community and implicitly recognizing the military takeover. Emails revealed last year by the State Department show that Clinton knew very well there was a military coup, but rejected cries by the international community to condemn it.”
Post-coup Honduras has seen the return of right-wing death squads and political murders such as that of Berta Caceres, an activist who, before her death, had herself singled out Clinton as responsible for the coup. Ironically, Clinton’s running mate Tim Kaine frequently refers to his time in Honduras in 1980, decrying the dictatorship without ever acknowledging that it was installed and supported by the US, and showing no shame over sharing a podium with someone who helped destroy democracy and unleash violence there 3 decades later.
But if there is a people that has suffered most at the hands of Hillary Rodham Clinton, it may actually be the people of Haiti. In January of 2011 Hillary Clinton flew into Port-au-Prince to resolve an electoral dispute in this manner: the person who came third in the first round of Presidential elections should be bumped up to 2nd place because the US thinks he should and he should then compete in the run-off election. That is how Michel Martelly came to be President of Haiti. After 3 years the terms of the parliament’s deputies all ended, with Martelly refusing to hold elections. He ruled for a year by decree (without the international news media seeming to care in the slightest) before holding elections that were so fraudulent that they were scrapped after 8 months (in June). New elections are set for October of this year.
All of this was happening in a country tortured by an earthquake in 2010 that killed 220,000; a UN “stabilisation” mission, MINUSTAH, that acts more like a hostile violent occupying force; a cholera epidemic brought by MINUSTAH that has killed thousands; rampant corruption; and brutal political violence against the poor and the left. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton was put in charge of a much of the overseas construction funds and Hillary announced that they would test “new approaches to development that could be applied more broadly around the world.”
Instead of rebuilding Haiti it was decided to “rebrand” Haiti. After 5 years $13.5 billion of aid had been spent with little or no assistance being given to those affected. The money is systematically disbursed in ways that make the poor poorer and the rich richer. It goes to line the pockets of US contractors. It maintains a privileged class of NGO executives who wield regnal rights (those usually reserved for the sovereign) as if they were feudal lords. It goes on constructing enterprises that destroy farms and small enterprises to return only a pittance in slave wages (incidentally, during Clinton’s time heading the State Department, US embassy staff opposed a minimum wage rise and cables released by Wikileaks in 2011 showthat they helped block a law passed unanimously in Haiti’s parliament raising minimum wage from $US0.24 to $US0.61).
“Reconstruction” money also gets spent on luxury facilities for the rich on the theory (or rather the pretext) that poor homeless people will be able to get jobs. The US Red Cross raised $500 million for Haiti and only built 6 permanent houses, (note: this is not the International Red Cross, but rather the US organisation which also gained notoriety and condemnation for their response to Hurricane Sandy).
Meanwhile connected people from the US have found that Haiti is “open for business” (the actual slogan promoted by Clinton), with natural wealth to plunder and cheap labour to exploit. Among them is Hillary Clinton’s brother Tony Rodham, whose company scored a “sweetheart” concession to mine gold that had not been given for 50 years. The mining threatens to inflict severe environmental and humanitarian consequences. So when Clinton castigates Trump for ripping-off small businesses and workers, as she did in her acceptance speech, just bear in mind that her corruption hits people who are even more vulnerable. Like the no-fly zone issue she gets away with it because nobody knows about Haiti.
These are just some of the moral grounds on which people can legitimately refuse to support Hillary Clinton. Others have been highlighted by Black Lives Matter, often dating back to Bill Clinton’s terms as President. She was supportive of welfare reform, the drug war, and justice reform which all led to the current neoliberal security state. Complementing this are her ties to Wall Street, her immense wealth, her obscene speaking fees, and her clear political expediency and flexibility on issues that should be matters of conscience. Any real leftist should loathe Clinton in the same way that they would loathe Tony Blair and George Bush. They are a new aristocracy that have proven that they will steal and kill. These are all warmongering neoliberal neoconservative neofeudalist neofascists and it is time we finally understood that none of those labels is in conflict with any other of those labels. People like Trotter have an authoritarian streak that makes him far more offended by those who try to make themselves heard by disruption from below, then he does by a stinkingly corrupt decadent system that is far more offensive. His tone suggests that he views himself as being well above the ill-behaved rabble as if, despite his evidently ignorant and vulgar apprehension of the issues, he has some paternal wisdom. It is not a good look, but he is hardly the only example of his species abroad. He also has prior form: in 2007 when armed police terrorised an entire rural community with “anti-terror” raids on Māori and anarchist activists, he wrote “it wasn’t the actions of the police that provoked my fury, but of those who’d forced their hand.”
And yet, Hillary Clinton and the undemocratic behaviour of the “Democratic” party are not the only things that make disobedience and disruption a legitimate response. The Democratic National Convention showed extremely disturbing signs of militarist nationalism and fanatical fervour. Eddie Glaude described it as “retooling Ronald Reagan’s morning in America, the shining city on the hill”. That day a 4-star General marched out to a military drum-roll proclaiming Clinton’s credentials as a war leader. He scowled and yelled, probably trying to look like Churchill, but actually ending up looking more authentically Mussoliniesque than Trump: “To our enemies; we will pursue you as only America can. You will fear us!”.
And then there was the unforgettable end of Joe Biden’s speech. Long considered a non-entity only distinguished by his blinding teeth, Biden became a man possessed: a fist-pumping spittle-flecked vessel for the spirit of GI Joe and John Wayne: “We are America! Second to none. And we own the finish line. Don’t forget it! God bless you all, and may god protect our troops. Come on. We’re America! Thank you.”
Most significant of allwasthe moment that many considered the highlight of the entire conference. The crowd erupted when Khizr Khan,the father of a GI who died in the illegal and immoral occupation of Iraq, rhetorically asked Trump: “Have you even read the US constitution?” And then proffered his own copy from the left-hand shirt pocket (next to the heart).
Judging from the response on twitter Khan’s act was adored by nearly everyone, and that itself should be frightening because the moment carried many implications, and not one of them is good. Firstly we need to recognise that this is a ritual gesture popularised by the nationalistic right-wing Tea Party movement and linked in the public mind to that ideology. Secondly, as the US-Iraqi activist and writer Dahlia Wasfi commented: “the message that a ‘good Muslim’ is one who kills for US empire, oil, and Israel is no less offensive to me than whatever Trump has to say about Muslims or Islam.” Thirdly this is a type of disingenuous appropriation of Islam equivalent to greenwashing, pinkwashing or femiwashing. Even Piers Morgan tweeted: “Something very distasteful about Hillary using Khans as political pawns vs Trump given she’s partly responsible for their son’s death”. Fourthly it signifies that in the space of just 8 years, the Democratic Party has gone from viewing the Iraq War as a “war of choice” (which has connotations, if noticeably inexplicit ones, of immorality and illegality) to viewing the Iraq War as a fight to protect US freedoms.
The entire DNC was so nationalistic and militaristic that the actor and activist Margot Kidder was evidently driven to publish a cri de coeur in Counterpunch: she begins “the words are gagging my throat and my stomach is twisted and sick and I have to vomit this out”, and ends: “And there you all are tonight, glued to your TVs and your computers, your hearts swelled with pride because you belong to the strongest country on Earth, cheering on your Murderer President. Ignorant of the entire world’s repulsion. You kill and you kill and you kill, and still you remain proud.” My question is this: if Margot Kidder can see this clearly from within the belly of the beast (well, Montana), how can Chris Trotter, an Aotearoan and putative leftist, be such a blithe apologist for a mass-murderer like Hillary Clinton.
In all I have written I have focussed on morals and reasons of principle. They alone should make it clear that only thing that is “ridiculous” is the conceit of loftily condemning those who refuse to be drawn by fear into supporting the insupportable. I am aware, however, that there are many practical issues I have not dealt with. I am aware that some people will think that US voters, facing the possibility of Trump, do not have the luxury of rejecting Clinton. These are very important issues, because time and again even those who refuse to be chained to the “lesser-of-two-evils” cede the realist high-ground to intellectually and morally compromised dullards; dullards who insist, like broken records stuck in the era of vinyl, that we must play the game and change it from the inside. I do not intend to leave such claims unchallenged, so check back here for Part 2 of this article in which, amongst other things, I will test how strong “chains of rhetorical steel” are (hint: about as strong as chains of rhetorical butter).
I started a conspiracy to harm Her Majesty’s Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (HMGUKGB&NI). I wanted to deal as much damage to them as possible so I conspired with a poet to plant an explosive and incendiary petition right in the heart of their own website. It was a petition to make the UK Government respond or debate the question of appearing before the International Court of Justice and allowing it to rule on the case of the Chagos Archipelago.
At issue is the terrible injustice to the Chagossians and their descendants who were arbitrarily evicted from their homeland with trickery or brutality. It was the US that decided the negative repercussions of this crime were a reasonable price to pay for a completely depopulated archipelago in which to put a naval and air base. The US gave the order to their British subordinates in a now notorious 3 word telegram: “ABSOLUTELY MUST GO”.
At issue also are the rights of Mauritius. The UK broke international law by detaching Chagos in the lead-up to decolonisation but refuses to have the question adjudicated. Her Majesty’s Government takes the position that Chagos will be returned to Mauritius once the islands are no longer required for “defence” purposes. So far they have “needed” Chagos for 50 years and there is absolutely no reason to believe that they will not “need” the military base on the island of Diego Garcia for another 50 years.
The plight of the islanders, who continue to live in deprivation, is a worthy cause, but we allow it to distract us from what is most important. Our natural sympathies and our psychology as activists is used to make the issue into a lightning rod. We pour our energy into that, and the UK Government directs it safely away from its edifice of imperial violence. Ultimately this is not only turning our backs on the victims of US military violence, it is also useless to the Chagossians. The fact is that no one can argue against the proposition that an injustice was perpetrated against the Chagossians, but they and their supporters are forced to fight the same battle over and over again, and each time they win it gains them nothing. To understand why we need to understand that human rights discourse is dominated by establishment voices who are unquestioningly subservient to power.
Considering the crucial importance of the military base for the USA and having in mind all the conflicts that are currently taking place in the Middle East and Asia and those that might be coming soon, it is difficult to believe that even if the Chagossians win again, they would be allowed for real to resettle the islands again.
The case of the Chagossians is interesting precisely because of its complexity and the many factors that have to be taken into consideration when examining it: the interests of both American and British governments, international politics, diplomacy and security, are most certainly factors that could not just be disregarded. So how do human rights enter the picture? Are they taken into consideration when they are opposed to international security? Could they change the course of events? They should definitely influence it. And here comes the question – is something as important as international security worth risking, so that human rights are not violated?
This creates a false dichotomy between human rights and “international security”. The author clearly cedes precedence to security as the superior concern, but without devoting even a single atom of examination to what it might mean. The embedded presumption is that the US and UK can unilaterally decide what constitutes “security” and that their actions are necessarily in favour of “international security”. On a very basic level this violates logic by suggesting that killing people and wreaking destruction in a region geographically distant from both countries is somehow in the service of “security” when there can be no immediate threat from the victims of that violence and destruction. If that basic flaw is unconvincing then there is the fact that US/UK interventions in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia seem to have spawned incredible amounts of insecurity. If “security” is defined as being the physical security of human beings, or even UK citizens, it seems quite a stretch in these times of instability and crisis to say that US/UK military actions have been in the service of security, but to simply stipulate that this is the case without even giving some form of argumentation is ludicrous and unforgivable nonsense.
The political discourse of UK foreign affairs relies on unchallenged assumptions and areas of inquiry where silence is enforced. Like their US counterparts the UK establishment cultivates and inhabits a world of parochial narrow-mindedness and mirror-blindness where they never need to ask themselves why they consider it their right to take lands and resources from others by force. The assumptions are based on exceptionalist notions that presume a fundamental benevolence of nature and benevolence of purpose as the foundations of Western civilisation. These assumptions take on the character of articles of faith and challenges to those articles are greeted with hostility as being heresy. For those that would oppose unjust actions by HMGUKGB&NI it is made much easier to challenge on narrow grounds by suggesting that a particular crime is an exception, while they affirm the rule. That is why it is acceptable to criticise the UK for injustices perpetrated on the Chagosians or even on Mauritius, but it is not permissible to state that their purposes in doing so are themselves criminal, arrogant, imperialistic, militaristic, illegitimate and morally repugnant. In fact even bringing up the subject is offensive, because the facts are so clear. The UK has no right to be in the Indian Ocean and no right to use territory there in support of killing people in the Middle East and Africa.
It is easy to see, therefore, why well-meaning people are attracted to the easy option of treating the issue of the Chagos Islands as separate from the acts of mass violence that are facilitated by the base at Diego Garcia, but it becomes a trap, The callousness of the treatment of those deprived of a homeland is infuriating and exasperating by design. Both openly and behind closed doors officials will fight every step of the way to avoid any admission of wrongdoing. They will make challengers fight and fight for every little admission and then finally, when the time is right and the fullness of consciousness is invested in the blatant injustice, they will admit regret and cite “strategic necessity” for “defence purposes”. In practical terms neither an individual nor a movement can change track at that point. Leaders of the cause, such as crusading parliamentarians, will effectively be subverted or left in a halfway position of campaigning to moderate rather than end overt wrongdoing.
At the same time the voices of the dead of 50 years of mass killing cry out. Diego Garcia is a base for long-range cruise missiles and bomber aircraft as well as communications and logistical support. Even leaving aside the questions of its naval and nuclear role, it is the source of incalculable death, destruction and suffering. This is not potential or theoretical. Another 50 years of “defence purposes” will mean hundreds of thousands killed. The very nature of the weapons systems is such that “defence purposes” can only mean imperial aggression. These are true weapons of mass destruction. Despite pretences, they are not and cannot be used in a pure military sense against a chosen Hitler-of-the-month dictator and their armies, they are weapons that attacks “peoples and nations” – which is the original defining trait of genocide.
Since the end of World War 2 the most indiscriminate and obscene weapon of war to be used has been the B-52 bomber. After smaller aircraft and ground artillery had had created a 20 km traffic jam on the Mutla Ridge early in 1991, it was B-52s which carpet bombed those trapped there, massacring them in a period of hours. This became known as the “Highway of Death” and the B-52s which were responsible for the slaughter flew from Diego Garcia.
Most B-52s that flew in the 1990-1 “Gulf War” were based in Diego Garcia. The near obsolete bombers dropped one third of the aerial tonnage and every time they dropped ordnance it was, by the very nature of the weaponry, a war crime of disproportionate and/or indiscriminate killing.
Paul Walker wrote:
B-52s were used from the first night of the war to the last. Flying at 40,000 feet and releasing 40 – 60 bombs of 500 or 750 pounds each, their only function is to carpet bomb entire areas. … B-52s were used against chemical and industrial storage areas, air fields, troop encampments, storage sites, and they were apparently used against large populated areas in Basra.
Language used by military spokesman General Richard Neal during the war made it sound as if Basra had been declared a “free fire zone”…. On February 11, 1991, Neal told members of the press that “Basra is a military town in the true sense…. The infrastructure, military infrastructure, is closely interwoven within the city of Basra itself” He went on to say that there were no civilians left in Basra, only military targets. … Eyewitness accounts Suggest that there was no pretense at a surgical war in this city. On February 5, 1991, the Los Angeles Times reported that the air war had brought “a hellish nightime of fires and smoke so dense that witnesses say the sun hasn’t been clearly visible for several days at a time . . . [that the bombing is] leveling some entire city blocks . . . [and that there are] bomb craters the size of football fields and an untold number of casualties.”
This was the opening of a period of genocide against Iraq. In 1998, during the sanctions period which was estimated in 1996 to have cost 500,000 children’s deaths, B-52’s from Diego Garcia launched 100 aerial cruise missiles as a major part of Operation Desert Fox. While officials, wonks and security studies hacks are triumphal about the efficacy of strikes against “regime” targets this comes from the long-standing habit of conflating civilian and military targets.
The patently false stated aim of Operation Desert Fox was to “degrade” the mythical WMD programme. The targeting of “command and control”, WMD industrial and “concealment” sites, and the Basra oil refinery were all deleterious to the people of the stricken country. Only retrospectively did the think-tank pundits decide that the real aim must have been regime destabilisation not WMD, but as with the sanctions inflicting misery and hardship on Iraqis only strengthened the governing regime. From 600-2000 civilians died along with an unknown number of military personnel who were attacking no one and had no chance to defend themselves or fight back.
In 2001, Diego Garcia was the most important base in launching attacks on Afghanistan. This was a high-altitude no boots-on-the-ground approach by the US which led predictably to a power vacuum, rampaging warlords, insoluble instability, refugee crisis, food insecurity and everything else we have since seen unfold. Like Iraq, the country is being slowly tortured to death. In 2003, Diego Garcia was once again central to US efforts against Iraq. Readers are probably somewhat familiar with what has happened in the area since.
Diego Garcia has never had legitimate “defence purposes”. It is a strategic asset of empire and it is used to maintain control over the Middle East, South Asia and parts of Africa. The base is there primarily for the purpose of killing large numbers of people at once when other means of exerting power are unsuitable, undesirable or unavailable. Its role is distinctly and inescapably genocidal.
Here’s the thing: it is difficult for activists to recruit people by accusing the government of war crimes, let alone mass-murder and genocide. A web search will show that even antiwar websites and writers tend mention Diego Garcia’s role in bombing only in passing while focussing either on its role in torture and “extraordinary renditions”, or on the injustice perpetrated against the islanders.
It is easy to see why the plight of the Chagossians appeals in the same way that seeing rabbits tortured in testing cosmetics was so rousing in the 1980s. The moral dimensions of the issue are readily apparent and very few people need to re-examine their ideology, challenge their beliefs, or question their loyalties. The Chagossian cause is just, but it is not right to ignore other crimes which are even more monstrous. It is not right, and it is not wise. Without undermining the “strategic necessity” argument then there can never be a victory. The Chagossians have already won in court – several times – but they remain in exile. Why? Because “defence purposes”.
People may not want to hear the truth about imperial aggression and the suffering inflicted in their names, but they can at least understand that giving the US a base in the Indian Ocean from which to bomb people has not made the United Kingdom in any respect safer. No one can suggest that carpet bombing Iraq reduced the threat of terrorism or Saddam’s WMD. If we do not accept that there are valid “defence purposes” then there are no legally or morally valid “strategic” reasons for keeping the Chagos Archipelago. That is something that we must always bear in mind when working in this cause – there is no strategic justification and the UK has no right to be there at all.
The cause of Mauritius is also just. They are the rightfully sovereign country deprived due to “strategic” decisions taken in 1964-5 which were no more defensible than the depopulation decisions of 1970-1. Mauritius recently won a case against the UK in the Permanent Court of Arbitration, but the UK denies the jurisdiction of the court and the court cannot rule on the issue of sovereignty. Mauritius is taking the case to the International Court of Justice for an “advisory” ruling, but that is only as good as the publicity it generates. They need allies, especially among UK activists who can keep the issue on the agenda at home.
For this reason I contacted Mhara Costello, an activist and poet who uses the pen name Tamerishe. Along with her poem “Once Upon a Palestine” she also wrote “Just a Word” which deals with the abuse of the term “terrorist”. It seemed an appropriate qualification. We formulated a petition that would incorporate a direct challenge to the narrative frame which ensures that critiques always remain atomised, specific and isolated – hermetically and prophylactically sealed away from infecting the self-righteous self-love of civilised Britons.
The characters allowed for e-petitions to HMGUKGB&NI are predetermined and restrictive, and this is what Mhara posted:
HMG should agree with Mauritius to an ICJ case regarding the Chagos Islands.
The Republic of Mauritius claims sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago, but that claim is disputed by the UK. If the UK government agrees the International Court of Justice can hear and judge the issues as a “Contentious Case” in accordance with international law.
At issue is more than sovereignty. The UK forcefully removed the inhabitants of the islands and leased Diego Garcia as a US military base. The treatment of the islanders is cruel and unjust, and has been ruled unlawful. The US military base sends bombing sorties which cause countless deaths and may constitute crimes of aggression or terrorism. The base is also implicated in torture, illegal rendition, and concealment of illegal munitions. More at: http://johnpilger.com/videos/stealing-a-nation.
The first response was silence. The after prodding the following belated reply:
Thank you for your email. I apologise for the length of time it has taken to process your petition. We can accept the central request of your petition, but we cannot publish the second paragraph because it does not comply with our rules. This means that your petition would read:
HMG should agree with Mauritius to an ICJ case regarding the Chagos Islands.
The Republic of Mauritius claims sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago, but that claim is disputed by the UK. If the UK government agrees the International Court of Justice can hear and judge the issues as a “Contentious Case” in accordance with international law.
If you could let me know that you are happy with this, we could publish your request immediately.
To which Mhara responded:
No, I am not happy removing the second paragraph. I would be willing to amend it. Can you be more specific please, regarding your objections? In what way does the petition not comply with the rules? Please cite which rules have been breached? I am unable to identify any (inadvertently) I may have overlooked.
She then sent a second reminder and eventually received a longer email including the following:
We cannot publish the second paragraph of your petition, because we have not been able to establish that the very serious allegations you make are true. I hope you will understand that we cannot publish allegations of unlawful conduct. We would be happy to look at alternative wording for this paragraph, if you would like to propose some. It would need to be worded moderately and fall within our rules. You might reasonably say, for example, that many people believe that the former inhabitants of the Chagos Islands have been very badly treated by the Governments of the UK and the USA, and that this ought therefore to be examined by the ICJ.
They are saying that you can’t detail allegations that you want addressed in court, because you have to prove the truth of the allegations before petitioning to have the matter adjudicated. This response is a bureaucratic Catch-22 piece of nonsense. It must be assumed that, as intended, the petition itself is troubling. The offending paragraph deliberately broadens the issue as much as possible within the character limit. One petition is unlikely to really shake the UK establishment, but it may yet frighten them because it takes matters into a realm which they cannot control. What is more, there is a hook in it.
When they commit crimes or act unjustly the greatest vulnerability of the authorities is their perceived legitimacy. When they are forced to overtly display illegitimacy it breaks their support structure. Even in the face of mass popular condemnation, a government can act with blatant injustice as long as they have a cover story – a lie which, however unconvincing, allows those who really want to give them unconditional support to believe in benign intent or even the ineffable divine schemes of “security”, which lie beyond mortal ken. In this case the UK might be in an awkward position if the question were debated because it does not want to negotiate directly with Mauritius. To explain why they do not wish the matter adjudicated by the ICJ the UK government might either have to say it prefers bilateral talks or it would have to say that it does not think its actions should be subject to adjudication under international law because “defence purposes”. That would bring the spotlight back onto the criminal uses of the criminally acquired Chagos Archipelago.
Right at the moment the “perceived legitimacy” of the UK government may already be close to breaking. Foreign entanglements must surely seem even less attractive to the UK public than February 2003, when a million marched in London to protest the looming invasion of Iraq. The sordid aftermath of shame from that act continues while the ongoing Balkanisation of the oil rich Arab world is surely one of the most inglorious blood-lettings in the unpleasant history of conflict. Even for those who do not understand that US/UK intervention created the fractures and fervour that wrack the region, it is hard to see any nobility in backing the Saudis, the Israelis and the “moderate” forces that fight alongside al-Nusra.
Meanwhile, the establishment seems to have to put the UK public in its rightful place of silent subjugation more often than it would normally need to. It seems that every time that there is a popular consensus in the general population or some significant segment of it, they need to be reminded that their democratic voice must be conveyed through a mediating wah-wah pedal that is under the foot of their social superiors. Whether it is giving Thatcher an appropriate send-off, or naming a sea-vessel, or when Labour Party members mistakenly choose a leader whose views coincide with those of ordinary people. Much more of this and people will start demanding that the hollow sham of modern democracy have some populist stuffing shoved back in it, and once government’s start giving in to popular demands it just encourages more; things could spiral out of control and before you know it you are dealing with a sovereign self-emancipated people who do not want a society run by and for a controlling greedy and/or power-obsessed few.
That is why even an e-petition can frighten Her Britannic Majesty’s mighty Royal Government. They need people to continue to be their own worst enemies. They need people to sabotage their own efforts. They need people to think that those within the establishment have a greater understanding of issues and how to tackle them. They need them to make their own protests against specific injustice into an embrace and an endorsement of the system itself.
Let’s show them that we won’t play that stupid game any more.