The 2016 US Presidential Election Will Not Take Place

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canned-life

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:

 

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:

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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.

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The Empire Paradox: More Power is More Weakness

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neolibs

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.

neoliberal-power-supply

Picture: power supply in Iraq embodying the “logic” of neoliberalism

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.