'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Enemy is at Home (Part 1) 

As I posted last week, my initial response to Obama's decisions related to torture and indefinite detention was to allow others to speak. By Friday, I had changed my mind, and posted a brief commentary.

Over the course of the weekend, I concluded that this commentary was inadequate, because it failed to convey the seriousness of what had transpired, or, perhaps, more accurately, because it politicized the situation at the expense of broader social consequences. It is now apparent that the government has been captured even more so than normal by financial and militarist interests, rendering the electoral process almost completely irrelevant. Liberals now find themselves as marginalized as leftists have been, with only the right remaining some limited room to maneuver.

How did we get here? Of course, on the military side, the critical event was 9/11. In response to it, the military and law enforcement were granted powers to act unilaterally and without oversight that they did not previously possess. Domestically, the enshrinement of the terrorist as an inescapable feature of American life, a secular Satan that can never be extirpated, generated momentum for the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. The FBI, the CIA, and the National Security Agency, with the assistance of local police, were authorized to select targets for investigation and subject them to various forms of detention, entrapment and surveillance that had only previously been utilized outside the law during perceived emergencies.

Liberals, many of them versed in the scripture of Anglo-American jurisprudence, objected, recognizing that the federal government was now expanding its war powers throughout domestic life. Indeed, the distinction between war and peace no longer exists, as the military and law enforcement are being directed to conduct operations as if the country is perpetually involved in violent conflicts, differentiated only by the severity of them. In such a climate, civil liberties are not really curtailed, but rather, reduced to something someone possesses to a greater or lesser degree based upon one's social and class status. Meanwhile, leftists were also alarmed, but were not particularly surprised, because, from our standpoint, capitalist societies have always resorted to such practices under duress.

It is important to realize, however, that the military and law enforcement have been accruing more and more autonomy over the course of many years before 9/11, as evidenced by the slow evisceration of constitutional protections, the paramilitarization of the police and the implementation of more punitive criminal laws. But 9/11 offered an unprecendented opportunity to provide broad legal sanction to their operations at the behest of the Executive Branch, with minimal to non-existent oversight by Congress and the judiciary. A process that had been proceeding incrementally in fits and starts accelerated, seizing the time so as to permamently subordinate individual liberties to a powerful federal executive. An American tradition of skepticism when it comes to the powers of the police and the presidency was abandoned.

Internationally, the situation is much worse. The military and intelligence agencies have assumed the power to detain, torture and kill anyone they consider a threat to the United States. They reserve the right to attack and occupy any place in the world if they believe it facilities American imperial interests. With the assistance of a complaisant media, they have invaded and occupied Iraq and Afghanistan, and threaten to escalate operations in Pakistan and bomb Iran. The only constraints upon their conduct are the ability of the intended victim to resist and internal dissent within the military and intelligence agencies themselves.

Liberals had great expectations that Barack Obama would reverse these alarming developments and return us to the more measured exercise of military and police power that existed prior to 9/11. Last week, Obama brutally shattered these illusions when he refused to release torture photographs, appointed a special operations general to run the war in Afghanistan, a general responsible for units involved in detainee abuse, reimposed military tribunals to decide whether detainees can be released from Guantanamo and other similar facilities around the world and considered seeking approval to indefinitely detain foreigners within the boundaries of the US itself.

The national security state in its most transparent, virulent form, is here to stay. The instrumentalities of social control in its possession will be used against anyone perceived as a threat to its fusion of neoliberal economics with increasingly autonomous military and police powers. And, make no mistake, there is an essential economic component to this enterprise. As I wrote in response to the bailout last fall:

. . . the same processes of secrecy that have been developed for the Pentagon and the intelligence services are about to be extended to governmental involvement in the financial markets. The government developed the bailout proposal in closed door meetings, and it was modified as a consequence of equally covert meetings between the White House and congressional representatives. No meaningful hearings were held, with the only public testimony provided by Treasury Secretary Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke. Understanding the rules of the game, they politely sat through a couple of days of verbal abuse as the price for getting their plan approved.

Furthermore, there was little consideration of any alternatives to the plan put forward by Paulson, alternatives such as ones that would benefit lower and middle income Americans as well as the financial sector. Indeed, there was not even an attempt to explain how the bailout would address the current crisis, and thereby initiate a dialogue as to how to most effectively confront it, except by reference to day to day events in the financial markets. As with the invasion of Iraq, the bailout was marketed through hysteria, and the need to relieve it. Substance was irrelevant, as there is nothing in the plan that necessitates that the recipients of funds through debt purchases actually resume extending credit.

Accordingly, we should presume that the extension of such secrecy into the realm of economic policy will become more and more of a feature of our domestic politics, regardless of whom wins the November election. And, more disturbingly, we should also assume that, contrary to expectations, manipulation of public ignorance, fear and anxiety in the service of capital and conquest will become even more frequent than it was during the Bush presidency. With the media as willing accomplices, there is no reason for politicians, and the interests behind them, to conduct themselves otherwise.

In that post, I analogized the process by which the bailout was accomplished to the invasion of Iraq, following the reasoning of Naomi Klein and Joseph Stiglitz, but 9/11 is the more apt comparison, because it was the seminal event that opened the way towards the consolidation of economic and police power that we have experienced. Unfortunately, Obama has confirmed my prophecy, and we are destined to live in a country where alternating economic and foreign policy anxieties continue to concentrate more and more power within the military, law enforcement and the financial sector for quite some time.

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