By Kieran Kelly
09 January, 2016
In Part 1 I asserted that there is a new globalised Fascist movement that has gradually, in fits and starts, insinuated itself as a new normal in Western regimes and in many “developing” regimes. A central claim of the article is that the differences between old Fascism and new Fascism are almost entirely due to the fact that the original Fascism was a nationalistic creed with imperialist ambitions, while the new Fascism is an imperialist ideology and mode of governance.
I also distinguish between the banal Fascism of governance and the dramatic Fascism of rhetoric. Fascists campaign as radical revolutionaries, but rule in a way that secures and bolsters the existing social order against mass discontent.
There is an inversion of the historic pattern in this new Fascism. This inversion of old Fascism parallels Sheldon Wolin‘s conception of “inverted totalitarianism”. Old Fascism harnessed mass political engagement during a time of crisis and channelled it into an ultimately reactionary political project. The new Fascism has harnessed mass disengagement but the crisis it has brought by its own success has led to the same populist right-wing explosion that was the vanguard of the old Fascism. We can now see – particularly in the US – that this is a matter of sequence, not essence. The mass embrace of combative right-wing populism is becoming ever more common, and it completes the circle so that the symmetry with old Fascism is revealed.
A major difference between old and new Fascism is that the biopolitical paradigm of control in the new Fascism is neoliberal and expresses itself the state violence of police, courts and the “corrections” complex and through the discipline imposed on persons as consumers and workers. It lacks the paternalistic aspect of old Fascist corporatism and nationalism. This too is changing. Authoritarian political rhetoric and the actions of police and intelligence agencies have brought the new Fascism into much closer alignment with the old.
In writing this article I have been beset by two serious problems. The first is that each new day brings new revelations. For someone who is as slow in writing as I am, it feels almost farcical because I am constantly being overtaken by events. Internationally the manifestations of overt Fascism (such as the hundreds of neofascists who just marched behind Swastika banners in Helsinki) are dwarfed in significance by mass expressions of Fascistic xenophobic violence, mass support for crypto-fascist “right-wing populism”, yet more militarism, and increasingly remarkable and yet unremarkable government suppression (such as the Republic of Korea‘s latest crack down which has seen, among many other things, more than 1000 cops sent to arrest a union leader hiding in a monastery).
The second serious problem is that boiled frogs are notoriously slippery, especially in metaphorical terms. In seeking to shine light on their sad state, I suddenly find them transformed into fish – fish who do not know they are wet. Immersed in a new Fascism, they cannot see the medium in which they swim. It is only by taking them out of the Fascist context that you can show the Fascist wetness of things and people that lie within. For example, the US started putting prisoners into Guantánamo 14 years ago. The institution was deliberately public – a display of power designed to incite fear and hatred, much like a public execution. At the same time, the public and overt nature of the Guantánamo prison complex was designed to establish a new norm. It established a state of exception – a zone where power was exercised without the constraints which are said to legitimise power. 14 years ago this state of exception seemed an exceptional response to exceptional and immediate circumstances. It was a dramatic departure from the norm. Now, 14 years later it is completely normalised. If events occur that provide a pretext to start sending more “terrorists” to Guantánamo we will only be surprised for about 3 seconds, and opposition will be seriously blunted by 14 years of inertia. As things stand, the continued imprisonment of inmates who have no rights at all is still a public statement. It says that power does not need legitimacy because the exercise of power legitimises itself.
Immersed in transparent Fascism, people are curiously incurious, accepting half-baked question-begging snippets of factoid-based analyticule. World-shaking historical events are placed in frames a thousand times too small to contain the full picture. I have previously written that the sheer scale of the refugee crisis is indicative of a subterranean Holocaust. Yet consumers of news media are given misdirection instead of analysis and are made to feel that the entire mass migration of tens of millions is somehow due to ISIS (the equally unexplained Instant State of Insane Salafists). The refugee crisis has been transformed by heightened fear and militarism into an even greater phenomenon, a type of post-simulation, post-Baudrillard mass violence: we may have already slipped into a secret sub rosa subterranean sub-real World War. There will be no precise and knowable beginning to this new World War, but it feels like the imprecise and unknowable beginning has already begun.
So bear with me as I list the 8 Signs that You are Living in a Fascist Regime, try to feel the wetness in which you are swimming and pity the fool author who bites off more than he can chew.
1 – Antifascists
In the Spanish Civil War there were International Brigades of volunteers who fought against the Fascist-led right-wing rebel coalition. Around one quarter of those volunteers came from Germany and Italy – countries that were overtly allied with the rebels – despite the fact that this would mark them as traitors. Perhaps more to the point the advent of the Civil War pushed the Spanish Republican side into a revolution. The rise of Fascism made the liberals and social democrats much less relevant and it empowered the innately antifascist Anarchists and Spain’s predominantly anti-Stalinist Communists.
When faced with movements of repressive authoritarianism, close-minded tribalism, moral expediency and vast inequality many people will respond by gravitating to libertarian, pluralistic, principled and inclusive ideals. Fascism changes the calculus so that when once people might have been inclined to think that society could not afford to be idealistic, they come instead to see that society can not afford not to be idealistic. Creeping Fascism has prompted a countervailing creeping antifascism. The upshot of the gradual advent of Fascism is that some people have become antifascists without even knowing it.
Of course, there is also overt self-conscious antifascist activism occurring. Antifascist or “Anti-Fascist” or “Antifa” groups are growing and becoming more active in Germany, the UK, Greece, Australia, Croatia, Portugal, Italy, Russia, France, Spain and Quebec to name a few. These tend to be counter-movements to extremist right-wing activists. Such antifascists have often historically fought street battles of varying intensity, but the frequency and distribution of such activities has slowly crept up. Even Bristol in the south of England has seen street violence between the Bristol Antifascists and the Bristol United Patriots. Such antifascists often greatly outnumber the more publicised growing right-wing formations such as Pegida and the English Defence League. Of late, however, that gap is closing.
The self-avowed antifascists are really only the tip of the iceberg of a broader and more significant generalised antifascist mood across the breadth of left-wing activism. This is an essentially and existentially antifascist movement, but even the activists don’t necessarily think of it in those terms. It started to evolve under an Anarchist renaissance in opposition to “globalisation” in the 90s. The thing about these Anarchists is that, like their Spanish antecedents, they largely rejected all of those organisational and tactical practices which were embraced by their antagonists. That meant a rejection hierarchy and dogma.
Consciously or unconsciously the anarchistic approach has come to permeate political dissent in the Anglosphere. Political scientist James Martel sees anarchist principles as central to the practices of internet freedom activists, antiwar activists, the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements, and more. We should bear in mind that during the Cold War era left-wing dissent in the West was decidedly dominated by authoritarianism and dogma. I am not saying that such dissent cannot be antifascist, nor that Stalin wasn’t antifascist because he was authoritarian. What I am suggesting is that when Fascism becomes visible people start to react with a more organic antifascist impulse. This is intrinsically pure antifascism, and it is on the rise.
What differs now from, say, battles between anarchist antifascists and avowed neo-Nazis in the 1980s is that this is all much more directly connected to mainstream politics. The right-wing extremists may still be socially excluded and marginal to public opinion, but they are ideologically aligned with centres of power that use “dogwhistle” tactics to validate fascist politics without openly declaring themselves as Fascists. This is even more striking in countries where avowed antifascists take action against their own governing regimes, policies or parties. Such countries include Switzerland, Ukraine, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, Turkey, and India.
Of course, this is only a selection of countries with antifascist activism. One I have not mentioned is the US, where avowed antifascists are rare, though there are some local and national organisations. In a way this can partly be put down to not seeing the forest of Fascism because there are so many trees blocking the view. Right-wing extremism is so pluralistic in the US that it resembles a bizarre menagerie. At the same time the political terminology of “right”, “left”, “conservative”, “liberal”, “socialist” and “libertarian” have all become empty signifiers meaning nothing more that “yay!” or “booo!” depending on the speaker. There is also the confusion that local, state and federal government agents practice and license right-wing extremism on one hand, but ostentatiously oppose it at other times. This is slippery Fascism – hard to oppose because it is so mercurial.
The US provides a lesson for all antifascists to learn – it is counterproductive to distinguish between the violent right-wing authoritarians who have swastika tattoos and the right-wing authoritarians who believe in guns or God or country or the uniform that they wear. What I expect to see, however, is that as the gobbets of Fascism increasingly clump together into a more obviously conjoined mass, those who have knowingly or unknowingly opposed aspects of Fascism during its rise will also consolidate both ideology and networks.
Whichever way you look at it, both activism that overtly opposes Fascism and activism that tacitly but coherently opposes what Fascism stands for is on the rise. It is a sure sign that there is a widespread Fascism which is prompting this phenomenon.
2 The Leader Principle
Like a South Park joke Amy Goodman recently inadvertently referred to the Canadian “presidential race”. It was also a Freudian slip. In the past 30 years it seems that every parliamentary democracy to have moved towards presidential style politics. In many countries the idea that a political party or ideology is tied to the personal qualities of a leader was once viewed with great suspicion. The reason for this is precisely because this style of politics is inescapably demagogic and fascistic.
In parliamentary democracies, strong party leaders have always been an asset, but electoral campaigning has traditionally been about getting a mandate for a party’s political platform and getting a mandate for a given parliamentarian to represent an electorate. That is the entire basis for the democratic pretensions of parliamentary systems – the basis on which the government claims to govern with the consent of the governed. In contrast, electing a single person as a “leader”, whether they be a Prime Minister or a President, is unavoidably undemocratic and presidential systems base their democratic claims on limiting or balancing executive power. More on that later.
To return to the fact that parliamentary systems are adopting a presidential campaigning style; the most striking example must be India. For those unfamiliar with India’s PM, if you do a web search for “Narendra Modi cult of personality” you will probably quite a surprise about the way things are in the “world’s largest democracy”. His 2014 campaign created a “Mao-like personality cult” (which I believe may be even more serious even than riding a Mao-style bicycle); and perhaps most disturbing of all, in the style of the late Kim Jong Il, soon after his election he opposed moves to devote a chapter of school history textbooks in Gujarat to his heroism on the grounds that “the life story of living individuals should not be included”. Apparently this “humility” has only served to increase Modi’s popularity. But NaMo need not have worried because the political mass movement from which he sprung, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS, sees “nothing bad” in a personality cult (and if millions of militaristic uniformed ideologues with a history of violence see “nothing bad” it is probably advisable to think carefully before disagreeing aloud.)
Not only have elections become increasingly akin to popularity contests controlled by marketing firms, but numerous countries are moving to consolidate more power in the hands of a single leader. In Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been trying to extend the executive power of the President. Previously executive power was largely vested with the Prime Minister and Cabinet, leaving President as a largely symbolic head of state. Erdoğan’s Islamist AKP was once the electoral alternative to the established fascistic old guard of corporatist militarist US client rulers (who were part of the Third Wave discussed previously). The AKP had planned to extend the powers of the President, but the electorate didn’t want to play along and so the Turks had to have a second election. As Rosa Burç wrote the elections were the “last exit before the bridge” to “an authoritarian presidential system.” The AKP put up barriers to prevent that exit and the bridge was crossed. The AKP regained a parliamentary majority and three days later Erdoğan put forward his plan to rewrite the constitution.
Elevating one leader above the normal party-political processes is not only authoritarian in its essence, it also fits the anti-political pretensions of Fascism. Moreover, along with the trend towards this “presidential” style, there is a widespread tendency to extend greater and greater political control to the executive power. This happened globally in the first few years after 2001, not just in the West but in the developing world, the BRICS countries and East Asia. Now that those changes have been around for a while governments are entrenching them by normalising the use of executive power which was originally implemented as a crisis measure. This follows a model established by Egypt and Israel who both implemented “Emergency Laws” 70 years ago and have not deactivated them since. For all of us now, a state of extraordinary crisis is the new normal. When governments are not yelling and screaming about the current emergency, they are still using the emergency powers. If challenged they will simply start yelling and screaming about the current emergency because, even more than at the height of the Cold War, normality to these people is defined as being a state of extraordinary crisis and immanent existential threat.
The best example of this is the US because on paper the executive should be limited. Naturally, any executive is going to have a lot of power simply from the immediacy of the office and the inevitable leeway that comes from choosing just how to enact the will of the representatives, but in the US case there are many putative “checks and balances”. Individual states have a great deal of sovereignty. At the federal level the most fundamental powers – legislating, taxing, spending, declaring war and signing treaties – are all in the hands of the houses of congress. Implementing policy is dependent on the disbursement of funds and often on the passage of legislation, so any administration is dependent on Congress. Further the executive can be constrained by the courts which have taken on the role of a watchdog ruling on the constitutionality of policies and laws.
There has always been a tension in US politics because various administrations have attempted, with differing degrees of success, to govern in the style of a fixed-term dictatorship. In the 1960s and 1970s Congress started to fight to regain the exercise of power that it is afforded in the US Constitution. Both Houses of Congress, separately and jointly, formed committees such as the “Church Committee” and passed legislation such as the War Powers Act of 1973. This was in response to the seemingly uncontrollable executive power which was then referred to as the “Imperial Presidency”.
According to Digital History the attempts to rein in executive power had mixed results: “The War Powers Act has never been invoked. Campaign financing reform has not curbed the ability of special interests to curry favor with politicians or the capacity of the very rich to outspend opponents.” Well given that Congressional failure to make decisions on war has become a bad joke repeated like an annoying sitcom catchphrase, and given the insanely expensive Pandemonium that is the current 23.8 month-long campaign for the 2016 elections, it is clear that they are vastly understating the failure.
On the other side of the ledger, Digital History claims that “Congress has had somewhat more success in reining in the FBI and the CIA.” Really? There was certainly a period during which these agencies kept a low profile, but if they retain any circumspection in certain areas, they more than compensate by shameless excesses in others. The FBI went from the COINTELPRO-esque “Green Scare” repression to a post-9/11 incarnation where it seems that the main activitity of the Bureau has been to create terror plotsin order to foil them and throw their own patsies into supermax prisons for inhuman and cruel confinement for breathtakingly long periods. As for the CIA, a key constraint placed on their activities were the executive orders issued by Ford, Carter and Reagan which prohibited political assassinations. Now, by contrast, the CIA maintains weaponised drones and kills frequently and overtly as a matter of “routine”. Worse still, perhaps, is the fact that the CIA and FBI are only small parts of a gigantic intelligence industry that is beyond oversight. Dana Priest and William Arkin’s landmark investigation “Top Secret America” is a disturbing look at an unstoppable many-headed monster. This is all the more alarming because the 2010 revelations cry out for action, yet no action is forthcoming or even talked about.
After 2001 executive power was extended by legislation such as the Patriot Act. George W. Bush also set a precedent by using “signing statements” as de facto, if limited, rule by decree. This was all magnified by “Unitary Executive theory” which holds that the President is at the apex all Federal executive authority. This is not from the Constitution, rather proponents argue that it is a true because they say so, which is true to the authoritarian spirit of the whole thing anyway. As Garrett Epps wrote: “In any crisis, it allows power to flow to the President; as crisis recedes, future Presidents tend not to give it back.” Obama has done exactly that. By not abdicating any of the powers accumulated by Bush he has entrenched and strengthened the Imperial Presidency to the point where it no longer needs to justify itself and it becomes invisible – especially to younger people.
Theoretically Congress could still exert authority over the President, but we have to look beyond appearances. Congress itself is beholden to other powers and can only act against the President when acting with their assent. There are still institutions that subject the Presidency to checks and balances – Wall St, the military-industrial-media complex, the imperial think-tanks, the NRA and so forth. For more on those institutions see section 8 below.
3 Idiocracy (WARNING: Contains Nuts)
Fascism has always had a strong anti-intellectual strain. A key demagogic tactic is to play on popular prejudice in a way that actively rejects critical engagement. Neocons share with the Nazis and other old-style Fascists an intellectual argument against intellect. Leo Strauss, in particular, devoted much scholarship to the ways in which exposure to complexity might dangerously overheat the brains of plebs. His acolyte Alan Bloom wrote the book The Closing of the American Mind in which he explained that if you don’t restrict, constrain and direct the learning of students to the things that Alan Bloom thinks are worthy, the very openness of the education system itself will cause a feedback loop of bottomless relativism which will actually cause the young to become close-minded.
It is possible that Strauss and Bloom were actually trying to subvert and spoil growing anti-intellectual trends. Strauss, a Jewish exile from Nazi Germany, feared the coming of a single world government. He advocated camouflaging meaning within a web of lies, even to the extent of living a life of lies. He advocated moral simplicity and a Manichaean clarity where good-guys wear white hats and bad guys wear black. He knew that this was consonant with Nazi philosophy so he was either being subversive or he wanted to make sure that the next time he was on the side of the persecutors not the persecuted (and if that was the case, why didn’t he just move to Israel). Likewise, Allan Bloom, as a gay Jew, had every reason to subvert the old-fashioned patriarchal Anglo-Saxon protestant dominated canon of “Great Books”.
Regardless of the intents of Straussian neocons, we may judge them on the fruits of their labours – they were fools. But they are just one tributary feeding into a veritable Mississippi of moronic mentality in the US. Other sources include televangelists who want you to send money in exchange for various unlikely miracles such as God paying back the loan with interest; advertisers who want you to send money in exchange for various unlikely miracles such as their product making you wealthy and sexually attractive; and politicians who want you to vote for them (and send money) in exchange for various unlikely miracles such as them not helping to destroy the human species.
The old fashioned Fascists reasoned their way to unreason through a philosophy rejecting materialism. A lot of today’s most influential opinion leaders would consider all philosophy to be derp and don’t believe in thinking anything that takes more than 140 characters (of which up to half may need to be set aside for hashtags). Likewise the neocons believe in keeping things simple for the masses. For them, people must be led by a sophisticated elite, but if intellectualism is suspect why would we want to be led by intellectuals – what we need is government of the idiots, by the idiots, for the idiots. The new Fascism offers that – at least in part.
One could say that the new Fascism Trumps the old Fascism in its capacity for unadulterated anti-intellectualism. Donald Trump doesn’t even bother to try and make sense. He is not necessarily innately stupid, but whatever his intellectual limitations may or may not be, he simply does not try to reason out his stances. He has absolutely no incentive to try to make sense of things, it would only get in the way of his success in making money, in being a celebrity, and in politics. He has no reason to reason.
Trump is also the beneficiary of many years of the boiling frogs mechanism discussed in the first part of this article. George W. Bush was careful to always distinguish between Islamist terrorists and peaceful Muslims, but his actions and his unspoken messages said something else. Under Obama the environment has remained extremely favourable to the growth of Islamophobia such that now Trump can lie through his teeth in saying and reiterating that he saw thousands of Arabs celebrating the attacks of September 11 2001.
Trump’s simplistic and hateful populism has prompted some people to use the f-word (here, here, here, here, here, for examples). Chip Berlet countered that he is not a Fascist, but rather a “nativist right-wing populist”. Without wanting to devote too much time to Berlet’s argument, the first thing that should be noted is that Fascists generally are “nativist right-wing populists” and that Berlet is simply begging the question because he does not define Fascism.
Second to Trump in the polls was Ben Carson. Andy Borowitz has pointed out that he is smashing stereotypes such as the tired old cliché view that neurosurgeons are intelligent. He claims that the pyramids in Egypt were built by Joseph to store grain. Why he advances this 1500 year-old pseudo-biblical hypothesis is anyone’s guess. I assume that he is predisposed to believe any contention that has a biblical reference no matter how unlikely it is and how extraneous to faith. He is also said to be struggling to wrap his head around the most simple facts of foreign policy, which led him to claim on live TV that “the Chinese are there” in Syria.
The fact is that revelations of Ben Carson’s diminished intellectual capacity have come hand-in-hand with his rise in popularity. I think it is fair to say that the US is leading the charge into mass stupidity, but even there they have reached peak Carson. Like Wile E. Coyote he is in temporary defiance of gravity but will soon plummet to the depths of becoming a pop-culture reference – a meme which conveys a certain type of blithe and unselfconscious naïve idiocy.
The most important thing to note about Trump and Carson is that doing, saying and believing stupid things has not in any way prevented them from being successful. On the contrary, it has been the key to their success. It would be hard to demonstrate, but I genuinely believe that Carson needed both his religiosity and his cluelessness to succeed. As a poor black young man scepticism, social consciousness, or even just showing up his academic superiors would have earned ire and exclusion, leaving him as just another angry individual with wasted potential. By destroying or suppressing intellectual potential outside of his chosen field Carson has been made into an intellectual monstrosity – like a jigsaw of a normal mind with 2 thirds or more of the normal pieces taken away. On a purely human level this makes him a bizarre twisted thing, but he is twisted in the right way to allow him to have succeeded.
Trump is the product of a far more widely evidenced type of protective stupidity – that of gangsters, used-car salesmen, politicians and journalists. This is the protective stupidity of someone who does horrible things, often visiting harm to others in a very personal manner. Such people adopt a callous and officious obtuseness which is their armour against any questions of morality and ethics. They internalise these things so that they don’t have to answer their own consciences either. The degree to which such people believe their own lies is moot. The only thing that makes Trump outstanding is not that obtuseness and bullshitting are weapons in his political/commercial/celebrity arsenal, but the fact that they form the foundation of all that he has done.
Once again, the key to understanding outstanding anti-intellectual figures like Trump and Carson is to understand the context of a progressive dumbing down of entire societies. Miseducation is spreading. In 2003 it was found that the more you watched Fox News, the more likely you were to believe falsehoods about Iraq. This was not caused by Fox overtly lying, but rather by their coverage being constructed in a way that would seem to be utterly nonsensical if these lies weren’t true. For example, you would not devote hours and hours of coverage to the links between Saddam and Al Qaeda if they were fictitious. The only way that would makes sense was if you had a deliberate co-ordinated plan to deceive people but did not want to be caught in an outright liAe. Similarly, the vast majority of consumers of Western news media will currently believe that refugees were responsible for the Paris terror attacks that happened recently. The media coverage of political moves to restrict refugee entry in response to Paris makes no sense unless refugees carried out the attacks. Thus it can be concluded that there is a conscious effort to deceive. People did not need to switch to being ignorant Fox viewers, because Fox News came to them.
Trump and Carson have responded to the Paris attacks in a way that prominent US Muslims have described as “beyond terrifying”. They make a connection to Nazism for the simple reason that the analogy is too apt to ignore. It isn’t just Trump and Carson either. Jeb Bush is calling for a “Christianity test” on Syrian refugees. People are still taking them seriously. Trump may never become President of the US, but he is creating a space in the political landscape. Someone slightly less comical but equally antagonistic to evidence-based reason could fill that space in future times, but even in the absence of that new Leader he has added to a vortex of unthought which sucks public discourse into a vapid vacuum.
This entire section has featured the US because it is a large slow-moving target when it comes to accusations of ignorance and stupidity. A town in North Carolina rejected a solar power farm in the belief that it would “suck up all the energy from the sun”. In 2012 I posted a piece entitled “Polls Show: Israelis Racist Hateful Baby Killers, “Americans” Stupider than Frog Spawn”. I wrote, “If a Martian were to make judgements on the peoples of the Earth based on their responses to polled questions, that Martian might possibly conclude that the average US citizen has an intellectual ability somewhat below that of a concussed baboon and that the average Israeli would like to see all Palestinians strangled at birth.” My point was that the average person from these countries was probably not well represented by the extreme results, but that the polls reflected growing trends. Sadly I was right.
But the growing interlinked hate and stupidity is by no means contained in the US and Israel. Writing of the current “Age of Stupidity” Andrew Levine opines: “The U.S. hasn’t gotten smarter, but it is no longer the outlier it used to be.
“Everyone knows that British bombs in Syria will serve no useful military purpose; that their effect is mainly symbolic. And yet they bomb – putting the British people at greater risk.
“This is stupid indeed, but David Cameron is downright sagacious compared to François Hollande. With the National Front breathing down his neck, Hollande has affected a stance as vengeful – and dumb — as Bush and Cheney’s after 9/11.”
Anti-intellectualism is pre-condition of many of the aspects of Fascism that I will continue to enumerate. The violence, the chauvinism and the hypocrisy all require a type of willful stupidity to exist. Sometimes the stupidity is internalised and intrinsic to the individual Fascist, but it is often a deliberate construct. The bizarre claim by Binyamin Netanyahu that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem persuaded Hitler to kill all the Jews is, like the Tory attacks on Corbyn in the UK, calculated to impress a certain section of the Zionists who are impervious to simple logic and common sense. ISIS followers believe that they will fight a battle against the “Romans” in small town in northern Syria as part of the end-of-days showdown against the Antichrist. This is used to recruitpeople, but it only works because they are willing to accept a particular interpretation of a sentence in the Hadith as being worth killing and dying for. Perhaps that is what makes ISIS most scary – they are idiots like us.
3b More Idiocracy
As amusing and alarming as the foregoing idiocy may be, it may actually be less of a problem than the degradation of those institutions that are meant to reflect the pinnacles of intellect and knowledge.
Tertiary education, for example, has always been dominated by the ruling class and by bourgeois perspectives. If universities are often associated with activism and dissent it is certainly not because rich kids are more idealistic and dedicated than others, it is because the knowledge that is incidentally gleaned in their process of “education” tends to create discontent. The very nature of the universe itself is anti-establishment. To paraphrase Steven Colbert, “truth has a well-known left-wing bias”. Of course, the knowledge aspect of tertiary education is on the decline. For some reason it is universally accepted that the tax payer and the student should pay their own money to become exploitable “human capital” that someone else can profit from. We demand that universities provide what employers want even though the employers aren’t paying for it. Instead of tertiary education, wherein students learn about things, we have a tertiary training model, where students learn to do things.
In addition the university is a strictly hierarchical structure. It is all very open and free until suddenly it isn’t. There is no one who will tell you outright not to say certain things, but wrong thought is treated by double-standards of nit-picking, obtuseness, bullying and petty lies. If you don’t take the hint the system will eventually turn on you and you will suddenly realise that at key points it is purely authoritarian, 100% opaque, completely immune to appeal or interrogation. This is referred to as “traditional independence”. You don’t have to take my embittered and biased word for it because Steven Salaita, who was unfairly fired for his political beliefs, researched the whole subject and wrote this book and gives a one hour talk on his findings here.
Universities are also, and more importantly, dominated by junk merchants (who directly exchange “scholarly” product for money from those who benefit) and fanatics of ideological orthodoxy (who may be difficult to distinguish because their official pieties also serve vested interests). Furthermore there is a great gray area where as prospective employers, as sponsors, as investors, and as “partners” certain industries and interests influence tertiary institutions. Education is further degraded by the clearly deleterious influence of industries such as the pharmaceutical, petrochemical, arms, mining, biotech/agribusiness, PR/marketing, media, and finance along with an equally if not more destructive involvement from the military.
Beyond the university system there are also the “think tanks”, where money talks, power yells and Orwellian ideology screams out of loudspeakers. This is a whole issue in itself, worthy of entire articles like this, or this. Because they provide pundits and commentary for news media, think tanks have effectively become a type of ideological priesthood. Rather than describe them all in general terms I offer this case-study on a very respectable UK Islamophobe think tank excerpted from a blog post by ex-diplomat Craig Murray:
“Donald Trump’s remarks have brought appropriate condemnation, but the Henry Jackson Society got there first. In February 2006 Douglas Murray, Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society, stated :
‘It is late in the day, but Europe still has time to turn around the demographic time-bomb which will soon see a number of our largest cities fall to Muslim majorities. It has to. All immigration into Europe from Muslim countries must stop. […] Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board: Europe must look like a less attractive proposition.’
“The Henry Jackson Society is the go-to organisation for broadcasters looking for comment on Islamic affairs. I was both pleased and surprised to see the Henry Jackson Society named two days ago in a Guardian article on the mainstreaming of Islamophobia. …
… Guess what? The Guardian Editors have now excised all mention of the Henry Jackson Society from the article on the mainstreaming of Islamophobia. Interesting that, isn’t it?
The Henry Jackson Society seconds staff to the Quilliam Foundation. This extraordinary organisation is a career vehicle for “reformed jihadists” to milk huge salaries and luxury lifestyles from government money, in return for fronting an organisation run by the security services. Quilliam specialises in denouncement of Muslim organisations and talking up the Jihadi threat, offering “expert advice” on the government’s anti-free speech strategy. At the same time, it seeks to maximise the income of its directors. One interesting collaboration to make money was its collaboration with the current head of Pergida UK, and former head of the English Defence League, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (Alias Tommy Robinson).
“Quilliam have received millions from the taxpayer for their dubious “work”. But their application for Home Office funding to split with Yaxley-Lennon remains an episode beyond belief. Several of Quilliam’s staff are “lent” by the CIA-funded Henry Jackson Society.”
With the idiocy, the spin, the ideological faith-based reasoning, the junk, and the propaganda predominating in the public discourse, where does that leave public intellectuals? There is still room for engaged activist academics to tackles inequality, housing, racism, or neoliberalism in many important ways, but the fundamental areas of international relations, economics, and politics are the realm of the fanatics, the mercenaries and the pseudorealist dullards. More often than not, news media contextualise Western military action by getting comment from a puerile geek who heads a University-based think tank with called the “Center for Strategic Something-or-Other” who thinks the world is a James Bond movie and gets breathless while describing moves “take out” these ISIS forces or those Al Qaeda affiliates.
The most respected intellects in the public realm are now those best at peddling propaganda and blithely trashing intellectual rigour. Niall Ferguson, for example, wrote a 2012 Newsweek cover article that was full of deliberate distortions, that hasn’t lowered his stock. If Noam Chomsky had done something like that we would never hear the end of it, but Niall Ferguson is treated as if he is some form of superior being. His books are also abysmally poor from a scholarly, intellectual and ethical viewpoint except when he is writing about financial history. When writing about finance he is incisive and cynical, but when writing of more general history he simply reproduces old political rhetoric and propaganda. He is like an archeologist who, on excavating a midden, throws away all artifacts and instead collects the ancient, dry, dusty manure into a big heap. Then, for this pile of shit, he is given high accolades, praise, book deals and glowing reviews.
Neocons and other old warmongers like Henry Kissinger are treated increasingly like idols. In France the most notable intellectual of this time is Bernard-Henri Lévy. That alone should be enough to show how low we have sunk. Like Henry Kissinger, “BHL” is widely loathed, but he is accorded the highest status as a public intellectual.
The right-wing fanatics and neoliberal apparatchiks, who promote of greed, selfishness, hate and war, are not balanced by opponents who are given the same stature. Antagonists are effectively crowded out of the mainstream conversation so that the anti-intellectualism of the right-wing pundits spreads discredit over scholarship as a whole. Left-wing public intellectuals thrive amongst the activist minority, but are almost totally excluded from mainstream news media. Instead, news media will not only feature junksters from think-tanks, but will often allow paid PR people and political consultants to act as pundits. It is simply free unregulated political advertising for right-wing and commercial interests.
Meanwhile, a war criminal like Tony Blair can travel to any part of the world and, no matter how much ordinary people hate him, rich people will pay huge sums to hear him speak. They do not line up to pay for ex-leaders who did not wage a war of aggression. They are so enamoured of power that in their magical thinking the very fact that Blair was such a successful mass-murderer imbues his words with mystical sagacity. This reveals much about elite culture and politics that I will return to later.
In the US there is also a rarified zone “inside the beltway”. This Olympus is at the heights of power, but apparently at that altitude something weird happens to your brain and Ronald Reagan looks like a Great Man or even some form of genius. Among the beltway demigods are many neocons like Robert Kagan who are treated as paragons of intellect. Let me be very very clear here: some of these neocons, most likely including Kagan, know exactly what they are doing. Their idiocy is calculated. The past 15 years of ongoing slaughter, destruction and instability in the Middle East, Central Asia and parts of Africa under the rubric of fighting terrorism has seen the US extend its already unparalleled imperial hegemony. Without this death and suffering the US empire, which has voluntarily been constructed out of militarised control of strategic resources and finance, would have shrunk. By their own tacit standards, which are seldom voiced, the neocons have succeeded enormously. But that is not my concern here, because the way they publicly explain themselves is utter nonsense. Their intellectual offerings are much like those of Niall Ferguson, but where his is dusty remnants, theirs is fresh, steaming and pungent.
Accorded the status of intellectual people like BHL, Kagan, or Ferguson can say stunningly stupid things and be praised for their superior minds. However, let us not pretend that this is not pointed. The stupidity must serve the right purpose. It must be pro-war, pro-authoritarian, and pro-neoliberal. Or it could be Islamophobic. Sam Harris, for example, has extremely clever ways of saying extremely stupid things. As Marek Sullivan writes in Counterpunch, Harris uses “‘vaccinated polemicism’—a polemicism that incorporates a moderate dose of self-reflexive critique”. What he does is reject the crude Islamophobic rantings of people like Trump, and having established himself as a creature of reason, he performs a 180-degree turn and affirms them, except now couched in more multisyllabic terms. This “enables him to say one thing while meaning another, to give the impression of reasonableness while endorsing the most noxious ideas of the right.” To extend the metaphor I used for neocons and Ferguson, Sam Harris proves that despite everything they say, you can polish a turd. Many people who don’t like the raw turds offered forth by Trump or Ted Cruz will cheerfully gobble down Harris’ polished turds, which are a much better class of crap.
4 Let Your Fists Do the Talking
The proclivity for using violence is an intrinsic constituent of Fascism. When Fascists eschew violence it is always a tactical decision, because on the whole they are ideologically and psychologically wedded to the idea that if they use violence to advance an agenda it is necessary, natural and morally righteous.
If you have ever found yourself in personal opposition to neonazis or fascistic white supremacists, you will know that they project their own violent tendencies and intentions on those who oppose them ideologically. Fascist ideas are very attractive to people who have what psychologists refer to as “appetitive aggression”. This is fostered by trauma, such as family violence, and in turn prompts not just violent acts but cruelty.
Your average Fascist, however, is not a frontline Brownshirt. They mostly want violence to be inflicted on those they think of as enemies by those who they think of as their protectors. They want the police to be violent to criminals and to those who threaten the social order with activism. They are both thrilled and reassured by displays of military might and by the use of mass armed violence against those who they perceive as potential threats. This, in turn, is part of a tendency that psychologists term “right-wing authoritarianism”.
“Right-wing authoritarians” also believe strongly in following a leader, hence the name. For this reason I want to return to a particularly revealing recent incident described in the headlines of Democracy Now!:
“Trump’s remarks at a rally in Birmingham, Alabama were interrupted by an African-American activist who shouted, “Black lives matter.” Trump shouted, “Get him the hell out of here,” and a group of Trump’s supporters surrounded the activist, Mercutio Southall Jr., kicking and punching him. Trump defended their actions in a Fox News interview Sunday.
Donald Trump: “I don’t know, rough up, he should have been – maybe he should have been roughed up because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing. … And this was a very obnoxious guy, who was a troublemaker, was looking to make trouble….”
Trump is saying that it is good to beat up people who annoy you and his supporters spontaneously do that to protesters at his rallies. At a more recent rally “supporters yelled ‘Shoot him!’ ‘Kick his ass!’ and even ‘Sieg heil’—a Nazi salute—as one protester was dragged away.” Others yelled “light the motherfucker on fire”. But Trump and his followers are not that far from the mainstream. When protests have occurred at rallies for the Democrats as well as the Republicans for a number of years attendees have spontaneously surrounded the dissidents and chanted “U S A! U S A!” in a manner that should be chilling. It is not that much of a step to go from an aggressive mass chant to the violence of physical force.
Part of this is the belief that people raising their voice is discordant and a form of transgressive violence. Any perceived insult to the country or to authority prompts great violent anger. For both the leader and the followers anything seen as insubordination is the equivalent of unpredictable dangerous violence. This is shown again and again by US police who can become violent and agitated if people are not deferential.
The “white male entitlement syndrome” is part of a growing culture of authoritarianism in the US. A key indication was one of those incidents that should have been widely broadcast news, but which the global mainstream media managed to pretend was not newsworthy and that is the “Don’t tase me bro!” incident which became famous through social media. This happened in 2007 when some security guards at the University of Florida decide to detain someone because the did not like the question he posed to John Kerry. He quite rightly resisted being silenced and what followed looked a lot like they deliberately inflicted pain on him for having been defiant. The difference between this and many of the police incidents is that these guards were by no means in a confrontation, they had no possible excuse for being fearful, and they were not forced to exert control over the body of the man. Everything they did was utterly gratuitous. I am not trying to excuse other incidents of police violence, but this is an extremely uncomplicated example of uniformed thuggery by people who seemed to believe that it people who do not show deference to authority should be punished with violent pain. My great fear is that many people cannot really see why this incident is so disturbing and symptomatic.
It is only a short step from a crowd bravely beating a lone protester, to militias attacking peaceful rallies while the police studiously fail to notice. From there violence may easily become deadly. Back to India, Narendra Modi’s ideological wellspring – the RSS – is a militant organisation with many aligned militias. They have a long history of entanglement and involvement in bloody communal violence. This has long been a serious problem, but now violent Hindu nationalism has, to a degree, been endorsed by the state.
The English language Indian website Countercurrents.org features many stories about Indian fascism. This is a large and complex issue in a large and complex country, however there are two stories that I think will be striking to most readers. One is the fact that Indian tax money is being spent erecting statues to Naturam Godse. Godse was the Hindu nationalist, formerly of the RSS, who killed Mahatma (“Venerable” or “Great Soul”) Mohandis Gandhi. The statues are part of an attempt to rewrite history: to make Gandhi more exclusively Hindu and to elevate Godse. “One BJP MP called him a patriot and other BJP MP said that Godse chose the wrong target, instead of Gandhi; he should have chosen Nehru as his target.”
Alonside Gandhi and his murderer, Modi has also elevated the Sardar (“Chief”) Vallabh Bhai Patel. Patel banned the RSS after Godse killed Gandhi, so it is little wonder that Sandipan Sharma writes: “The utopian dream of the lamb and lion drinking from the same fountain couldn’t have found a more perverse fulfillment.” Combining contradictions within one entity might be fertile for spiritual and philosophical thought, but in politics it always denotes the deliberate confusion of antagonistic values in order to create Orwellian doublethink. War is peace. Modi, like Sam Harris, is polishing turds. He is making violence, hatred and intolerance acceptable to people who want to pretend that they are not complicit in the excesses of the few.
The second striking story of Fascism emanating from India is the natural result of the dogwhistle endorsement of communal violence that is implicit in Modi’s governance. This is the advent of anti-beef militias who attack and sometimes lynch people suspected of eating beef or transporting cattle. These attacks are directed against Muslims in general. Countercurrents details 5 deaths, all of which seem to be prompted by faulty or flimsy information, before adding: “Recently three writers were killed by fascist forces. Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M.Kalburgi were killed in cold blood and none of the culprits were arrested so far.”
Central and Eastern Europe have seen the coinciding phenomena of the rehabilitation of old Nazis with the rise of Fascist violence. In Latvia hundreds of Waffen-SS veterans and supporters marched. Earlier, “the last Estonian SS veteran to have been awarded the Nazis Knight’s Cross, Harald Nugiseks, was buried in Estonia with full military honors on Friday 10 January 2014.” In Croatia nationalists demonstrated against an antifascist ceremony chanting the Ustasha slogan “Za dom spremni” (“Ready for the homeland”). The Ustasha ran a Nazi client regime in World War II. They had their own death camps where an estimated 34,000 Jews, 80,000 Roma and 300,000-600,000 Serbs were killed. In Ukraine, though loathed by many Ukrainians, large numbers of West Ukrainians venerate Stepan Bandera whose Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists had dedicated SS units who are estimated to have massacred a total of 500,000 civilians.
Those who embrace the Fascists of the past as heroes tend to minimise their crimes of violence, but they themselves embrace the use of violence as a valid form of political action. Many readers of this article will no doubt be aware of the Odessa Massacre, but given the mainstream silence on the subject it is worth (re)acquainting yourself with the facts to understand what Fascists will do when they are able.
Behind the thugs who commit acts of cruelty are demagogues who spout what may at first seem to be hyperbole. We know from sources such as the Auschwitz doctors interviewed by Robert Jay Lifton that the over-the-top rhetoric of Nazi leaders, which they had almost disregarded when first hearing it, made it much easier to adjust to the new reality of daily participation in mass-murder. For this reason, like a tongue probing a sore (and cliché) tooth, I must return to the topic of Donald Trump: “’We’re fighting a very politically correct war,’ Trump said during a 2 December interview on Fox and Friends. ‘And the other things with the terrorists, you have to take out their families. When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families! They care about their lives, don’t kid yourselves. They say they don’t care about their lives. But you have to take out their families.’”
Trump, who is ahead in polls by up to 5-27% depending on the poll, defended his openly stated plan to murder innocent people by saying “we have to be much tougher than we’ve been”. But it is the context in which Trump is saying these things that is most disturbing. He fellow candidate (currently second in the polls) Ted Cruz wants to carpet bomb ISIS areas, where millions live, and says “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.” The same debate in which Trump said those things saw the moderator ask Carson: “Could you order airstrikes that would kill innocent children by not the scores, but the hundreds and the thousands? Could you wage war as a commander-in-chief?” So now it is normal and accepted that mass-murder is part of the job description of President of the US.
Being a pediatric neurosurgeon, Carson’s response to being accused of not being willing to slaughter kids was fascinating: “…you should see the eyes of … children when I say to them, ‘We’re going to have to open your head up and take out this tumor.’ They’re not happy about it, believe me. And they don’t like me very much at that point. But later on, they love me. …
HUGH HEWITT: So you are OK with the deaths of thousands of innocent children and civilian. It’s like—
DR. BEN CARSON: You got it. You got it.”
Even for a religious person like Carson it seems a stretch to think that those you have killed will look back and love you for it. Carson is combining two techniques of sanitising violent crimes that, while not exclusive to them, were greatly beloved of the Nazis. One is a specific dehumanisation which strips victims of their capacity for suffering. Usually this is done by saying that “life is cheap” for the enemy, but Carson’s childish fantasy works to the same effect. The other is the use of a medical/surgical metaphor for warfare. This enduring mental framework for the grotesqueries of mass violence adjusts the attitude of those on the home front, those in the rear echelon, and those in the front lines carrying out the butchery. We might like to think that we cannot become the new Nazis, but once you accept the basic proposition that killing human beings is an act of sanitisation, or the excision of a disease, then there is no limit to how far you will take that killing.
This brings me to my final point, Jeb Bush, because of the circumstances, is able to make a completely anodyne and banal call for genocidal mass slaughter: “We need a strategy. We need to get the lawyers off the back of the war fighters. Right now, under President Obama, we’ve created this standard that is so high that it’s impossible to be successful in fighting ISIS…. We need to increase our military spending. We need to deal with a no-fly zone in Syria, a safe zone. We need to focus on building a military that is second to none.”
Bush’s word are the most significant of all because, although he is far too unpopular to become POTUS, he is the genuine voice of power. His words could have been uttered by Hilary Clinton without anyone raising an eyebrow. Her own rhetoric is extremely warlike and she is the easy frontrunner when it comes to campaign contributions from weapons manufacturers. Remember that almost every POTUS of the last half century has become significantly more hawkish after each successful election. In that context, what Bush is saying is ominous in the extreme.
5 Might is Right
Fascists believe that by exercise of power and will people can righteously act outside of the boundaries of law. They loathed “criminals”, but when they used the term they meant poor people, minorities, and race/class traitors. Breaking the law for your political beliefs or for self-advancement is not really criminal. “Moral” crimes and material gain are gray areas because the Fascist ideology is really just a cover for a psychology of us and them. The fear and hate directed at them is rationalised and justified by the fact that they are innately criminal. Those prone to this viewpoint are, on one hand, inclined to project their own sense of self onto others they consider respectable, and on the other hand have so conflated the concept of criminals with their phobic negative feelings about them. On both counts it makes it hard for them to view social peers and social superiors as actual criminals, nor view their illegal and transgressive acts as being actual crimes.
Once again our societies have drifted into a place where the fundamental relations of power that were truly important to Fascism are in effect, but the more visible flashing patent-leather declarations of Fascist ideology.
We are now more accepting of the idea that the rich and the powerful are beyond the law. I could mention here the near impunity enjoyed by perpetrators in finance, in oil and mining, in US law enforcement. There are a few scapegoats, but they are the exception. For example Donald Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, was prosecuted after 29 men were killed in a mining disaster in 2010. In my own country of Aotearoa when 29 mine workers were killed in the same year, CEO Peter Whittall managed to position himself in the news media (which is a willing tool of the PR industry) as something akin to a heroic rescuer. Whittall did face 12 charges, but they were dropped in what appears to be a deal in exchange for a voluntary payment of $3.4 million. His company was convicted and fined and ordered to compensate victims, but it went bankrupt, paid no fine, and gave only $5000 to each grieving family.
We are thoroughly accustomed to the idea that prosecutions against the rich are dropped because they might be expensive and risky, but we seem utterly oblivious to the hugely disproportionate use of national wealth that goes into prosecuting the poor and then locking them up at the taxpayer’s expense. I was nearly selected to sit on the jury for a couple accused of small-time tax fraud. Between investigation and prosecution it was clear that the expense to the taxpayer would have been at least 10 times the amount that they were accused of defrauding. The prosecution were seeking custodial sentences the costs of which would have also exceeded the amount they defrauded. In a bittersweet epilogue, after the conviction the local community has had to use its resources, including time donated by lawyers, to prevent the female convict from being deported away from her citizen children.
The accused in that instance were not exactly poor. They were petit bourgeois facing the same sort of “justice” that a working-class petty criminal would face. To demonstrate the long arm of the law, the state will entirely disregard cost when it comes to punishing the lower orders. The criminal justice system will wreak havoc on families and communities to remind all ordinary people that they are subject to the rule of law. They are sending a message to the poor. They also send a message to the rich, but it is a very different message. The message is that they will be fine unless they are very unlucky, or they steal from rich people, like Bernie Madoff did, or they paint a large bullseye on your chest and wear a cap saying “I’m an ideal scapegoat”, like Martin Shkrelli did.
Having different rules for the rich and for the poor is nothing new, but as our societies become more authoritarian, it becomes more natural. US law enforcement officers, for example, seem to genuinely believe that if they break the law it is not a crime. Equally, the outpourings of public support for George Zimmerman show that for tens of millions of people in the US right and wrong is a literal matter of black and white. The scary thing is that those who don’t believe that George Zimmerman is a murderer are so profoundly racist, in a deep and often quiet way, that they cannot even be reached by reasoning.
Similarly, when an Auckland businessman chased a 15 year-old tagger and stabbed him to death with a knife, there was a great deal of public support for his claim that it was self-defence. The boy, who was Maori, was portrayed in court as a pothead and an alcoholic. The killer was convicted, but the incident showed how even in Aotearoa, the foul slime of respectable and fearful racism is not far from the surface.
These cases show the way different aspects of society blend into a Fascist whole. Hate for the poor, however tinted by race and class notions, is always a product of uneasy consciences as well as being linked to authoritarianism and chauvinism – call it the discreet guilt of the bourgeoisie.
Times of crisis catalyse fearful privilege and create a fertile medium for Fascism to flourish. One of the symptoms that has come to the fore of late is Aggrieved White Male Entitlement Syndrome. This is a violent reaction, much like that which prompted the formation of proto-Fascist Freikorps militias in Germany after World War I. This happens when those who enjoyed status and security within the system lose their privilege due to systemic change or crisis. Out of egocentricity, and because the myths of society put them in an unrealistically central role, they mistake the symptom of breakdown (their loss of privilege) for the cause. They then blame those who campaign for equality for breaking a system in which they dreamed themselves to be the ruling class.
As I have already written about on another occasion, there is also an imperial version of Aggrieved White Male Entitlement Syndrome. You don’t have to be white or male, you just need to think that you are meant to be the part of the greatest and best country in the world, and when that imperial state no longer accords you secure well-being, your reaction is that other peoples should be attacked. In the most tragicomic fashion this is demonstrated by a recent poll in which 30% of US Republicans supported bombing Agrabah – a fictional country from a Disney cartoon.
This brings me to my next point, that governments and powerful political leaders are not expected to always act lawfully. There is now very little expectation that Western governments will give a cogent legal rationale for military action.
Governments and their agencies have always broken laws, but the open defiance of the international law currently displayed by Western governments and some of their client regimes is precisely comparable to the same open defiance of international law displayed by Hitler. In many respects this was Hitler’s most striking trait.
The evolution of this overt and unapologetic illegality is quite and interesting tale. I call it “How to go from Truman to Hitler in 6 easy steps”:
1. Create client states as in South Korea and South Vietnam so that you can wage aggressive war against enemies under the pretext of “defending” the states you yourself created.
2. Wage clandestine aggressive warfare using puppet troops or mercenaries under the command of US “advisors” as occurred in Laos.
3. Wage secret conventional warfare using your own forces, but doing it “off the books” as in the “secret” bombing of Cambodia.
4. Lie, blackmail, bully and distort UNSC authorisation to use force as in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Note that this involved a greats deal of time and effort and was achieved at considerable diplomatic cost. It prompted mass popular unrest and was generally a risky and costly road to waging a war of aggression.
5. Get a UNSC authorisation to use limited force for a specific purpose and then simply use that as an excuse to wage a war of aggression. If people object, just thumb your nose at them. UNSC 1973 authorised the use of force to protect civilians, but belligerent Western and Arab regimes simply used as the pretext to wage aggressive war which toppled Libya’s government.
6. Bomb Syria and get all of your friends to bomb Syria. If people point the finger you can say that everyone else is doing it anyway. Congratulations, you are now officially As Bad As Hitler.
The UK claims that its bombing of Syria is legal as “collective self-defence” of Iraq under Article 51 of the UN Charter bolstered by UNSC 2249. But Article 51 provides that “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.” The intent is that claims to act in collective self-defence cannot simply be used as a pretext for aggression. The UNSC specifically did not authorise military force in UNSC 2249, therefore it must not accept, as a body, that there is a valid case for collective self-defence. It is perfectly legal for the UK to bomb Iraq at Iraq’s behest, but to bomb Syria on that basis cannot stand because the same logic could be used for any act of aggression where you deemed that one state was being attacked from within another. If that were the case any of the 5 permanent members of the UNSC could wage aggressive war anywhere in the world by citing this pretext and there would be no way to overrule them.
Let me reiterate that the transformation is not such much one of increased illegality, it is that we no longer expect of governments to act within the law. Security Council resolutions were a big deal in 2003, an issue in 2011, and a mere curiosity for “policy wonks” in 2015.
By the same token we are readjusting our expectations of democracy. 2003 was a watershed. A NY Times writer wrote that antiwar demonstrations “are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” Now we know that world public opinion has little power to constrain the US, or the EU, or NATO, or China, or Russia. The people of the world are the superpowerless. They are fooled and they are manipulated. When they do not accept lies they are capable of staging massive, elaborate, sustained and magnificent displays of impotence.
A study based on data from 1981 to 2002 confirmed what most people who concern themselves with the issue already knew: the US is not a democracy. The history of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) shows that the US is no exception. Both in polling and through mass action, peoples showed their clear opposition, but the regimes who signed the deal don’t really care. Equally, in this and in so much else, the news media vastly favoured the elite narrative and gave very little time to the popular narrative of opposition.
Not only is the democratic deficit getting worse, but the democratic electoral façade is becoming an ever more bizarre communal ritual that has nothing to do with democracy. To begin with I believe that there is a global pandemic of chronic electoral fraud. This is matched by an elite neoliberal hegemony over political and public opinion polling. We fool ourselves that, like PR companies, polling companies are amoral apolitical mercenaries, but they will not provide loyal service to those on the political left.
If we know that there is no democracy derived from the electoral process, then we are left to wonder what the increasingly elaborate and expensive business of campaigning is all about. The US is subjected to nearly 2 years of Presidential campaigning, but there is clearly no connection between public will and the actual post-election policies of the winner. In part the process is an auction block, with candidates selling policy for contributions. Mostly, though, the US Presidential campaign is an extended orgy of propaganda.
With a cast of thousands, a budget of billions, with focus groups, strategists, spin-mongers and the ever compliant presstitutes, the whole fantasmagoria is a long unrelenting barrage of thought control. It manufactures consent, it manufactures assent, and it manufactures disgusted disaffection and complacency. It gives some the illusion of self-determination, while it drives others away from all political participation. Amongst the array of candidates many will find either someone who they believe in, or someone who they feel must be kept from office, or both. All of the candidates are sheepdogs, herding all the voters together into lines to buy the product, Democracy®. They ride the electoral roller coaster in Democracyland and when it ends they are too dizzy and dazed to know up from down and left from right. Whatever happens after that they are told that they asked for it themselves or, more often, that everyone else voted for it and they must accept the democratic will. You can’t complain if you don’t vote and you can’t complain if you do vote.
To return to the subject of war, we can track the democratic deficit growing alongside the ever more blatant illegality. People hated the Korean War, so they voted for Eisenhower who ended the war. People didn’t want a war in Viet Nam, so they voted for Lyndon Johnson who promised not to send “American boys” but he promptly did exactly what he had promised not to do. Then they voted for Richard Nixon who promised to end the war. That did not work, either. But they had also been taking to the streets and taking direct action. More than 6 years after Nixon had been elected on promising to end the war, Congress finally ended the funding that would have seen the war continue in perpetuity. Now, however, it doesn’t matter if people take to the streets. Congress will never defund a war in the current circumstances. Perpetual war is with us. There are no democratic avenues to constrain the US empire in fomenting one eternal conflict after another.
6 Chauvinism, Extremism and the Death of Empathy
Two important related traits of right-wing authoritarians (or authoritarian “followers”) are aggression and a lack of empathy in general. These traits are greatly intensified by an excessive and exclusive identification with one’s own self-defined collectivities such as ethnicity, race, nation, religion, sect, region, sex, and class. This even extends to rather minor things like school and sporting affiliations, but these may become very serious to the authoritarians.
When you get authoritarian governance mixing with a widespread mass authoritarianism then you will inevitably end up in a Fascistic society. The authoritarian followers do not need to be a majority, they merely need to activated and weaponised by official sanction.
The dog-whistle approach of demagogues has continually fertilised and inflated the extremism of the authoritarian minority and, like the Weimar Germans, we have probably been distracted by the growing pluralist and libertarian tolerance of the majority.
While we are caught up in the good feelings that certain dramatic reforms engender, such as gay marriage, we fail to notice the increase in structural problems, the growing levels of social, political and economic exclusion, the growing corruption of unbridled plutocracy. We fail to notice the anomie, the inequity and the iniquity, but we also fail to notice that large numbers of people don’t share our joy at seeing our fellow human beings gain dignity and freedom. Those people think that gay rights and social disintegration are the same thing. They might or might not think that growing inequality is a threat to society, but they will all screw up their faces at the mere thought of feminists, and they will all be scornfully resentful of “political correctness”.
And now, when crises hit these people and their opinions are no longer quarantined. They live in a world threatened by demons and it shapes their thinking in ways that we might find difficult to grasp and beliefs we might find difficult to take seriously. These beliefs are now supported and promulgated by “mainstream” political leaders, religious leader newspaper editors, and broadcasters.
Carly Fiorina was attacked by some for saying: “Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.” But many people are being told, and are receptive to, the message that the fact-checkers are the ones who have it wrong. For example in Breitbart you can read an article entitled “AP Correction Shows Carly Fiorina Is Right About Planned Parenthood and the Media”. If you actually read to the end carefully it does not actually validate Fiorina’s lie, but you actually have to try hard to notice that.
A Time article also seems at first to make Fiorina’s claims seem more credible. Twice they state that the video which she referred to has been released, but further down you can read: “There are no images on the full video of any attempt to harvest the brain of the fetus, and there is no sound.” The man who produced the video, Gregg Cunningham, claims to be “confident” that it is of an abortion, but refuses to name any organisation or clinic. In an online update Time was forced to admit that the footage could depict a miscarriage. As for Cunningham: “He said he worked as an intelligence officer at the Pentagon, where he learned the importance of using graphic images in wartime propaganda to establish popular sympathy for victims and anger at enemies.”
To summarise, mainstream people and outlets are promulgating emotive deceptive propaganda that feed extremism and violent reaction. Those who drink from this wellspring of demonisation divide the world into Us and Them.
They may be evil, subhuman, or merely unreachably alien. In many respects the Them is of lesser importance, a mere symptom of the more fundamental sense of Us. The point is that you only empathise and identify with the exclusive group that you understand as being human. You do not accord full humanity to others. From this perspective your understanding of any given Other may include any or all of the following: they are not capable of reason; they do not love their children; they cannot feel the same level of pain, fear or grief; they are inscrutable; they love destruction suffering and violence; they are evil.
The irony is that those who think they are the Us become the closest approximation to their own vision of the demonic Them – capable not only of committing monstrous acts but coming to revel in the suffering of others.
A recent study in the US has shown that students are significantly less empathic and more narcissistic than those 30 years ago. People are apparently confused as to how this could come to be, and the finger of blame often points to technology, violent games, and various aspects of youth culture. This makes me want to scream in outrage because we have wilfully promoted social relations and an orthodox ideology which makes narcissism and lack of empathy an absolute necessity for survival, let alone success, in contemporary Western societies and this disgusting culture has emanated from the US spreading like gangrene into the Anglosphere and then beyond.
From the Baby Boomer “Me Generation”, through the New Age, right up until now we have had more than half a century of an evolving social structure in which self-promotion has become compulsory in ever more varied spheres of life. The effect has been that of a repackaged and rebranded social Darwinism. Under the guise of individual positivity and self-esteem we have created societies where crushing competition is omnipresent. In this world the meek and the modest are kicked in the face, and feeling empathy for others will cause futile counterproductive angst.
This is the context that produces hipsters. For them social success and social inclusion requires an exquisite degree of self-regard while the space that previous generations might have reserved for political engagement is now filled with political correctness and ethical consumerism. This is also the context which produces trolls – people who derive a pleasurable sense of power and superiority from acts of destructive cruelty.
Other results of this need for narcissism include the reactionary impulse to recreate the nurturing tight-knit communities of an imagined yesteryear. In this imagined past the things that might cause anxiety, such as emancipated women or coloured people who are not servile, are (inaccurately) removed. This can be seen in Mad Men where the past is rewritten to make white male privilege seem less problematic, less contested, more natural and, above all, something that is not a source of guilt. That is not altered by a touch of self-reflexiveness or a morality-play type critique of white privilege because it is reaffirming the mythology of white supremacist nostalgia. Interestingly the critiques of Mad Men have themselves been dismissed as anachronistic, meaning that the ordinary perception of the past is in fact a distorted fantasy of white male empowerment.
The fascist nostalgia fuels nativism, racism, sexism, sectarianism, and religious fervour, but there is also a purely negative reaction that rather than trying to recreate fantasy, tries simply to exclude the contemporary notes of discord. In this nothing quite symbolises turning one’s back on humanity the way a gated community does. Gated communities have flourished in the last 40 years in both the developed and the developing world. The fact that they are often occurring where the risks of violent crime are negligible or not lessened by being in a gated community shows that these are the product of a distorted sense of danger and a fear of the disintegration of a fictional safe social order which never existed outside of the imagination.
The death of empathy can make the hegemonic class, ethnicity, gender, sect and/or religion into potential monsters. There is probably no clearer example of a nation losing the capacity for empathy than Israel. Israel has seen increasing levels of callousness and brutality. The anti-African racism in Israel has prompted both alarming words and shocking deeds. Israelis cheer the killing of Palestinians and desecrate their corpses. Religious scholars encourage the killing of children “if there is a good chance they will grow up to be like their evil parents.” A wedding party of Orthodox Israeli Jews danced and cheered to celebrate the death from fire of an 18 month-old Palestinian, brandishing knives and guns and stabbing a photograph of the murdered baby.
I could probably devote thousands upon thousands of words to describing what trollish hatred and violence that is gripping Israel, but instead I want to show how Fascism in one people can encourage Fascism in their enemies. In this instance I could cite the fact that opposition to Israeli crimes often causes anti-Zionists to cross a line from supporting the legitimacy of groups like Hamas and their right to resist occupation to actually becoming partisan advocates and supporters of this reactionary theocratic political organisation. More interesting than that, though, is the way that the real crimes of Zionism feed old-fashioned anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and white supremacist beliefs. People who believe in the impending “white genocide” (and who would probably cheerfully kill their grandmother if she began an intimate relationship with an Arab) seem genuinely concerned for the suffering of Palestinians. Of course, some are obvious shills for Israel, like this one but I don’t think they all are. The existence of these groups in turn feeds Zionist propaganda. The US-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL) decries the scary extremist “White Supremacists”. This is fuel for their long-standing practice of appropriating alarm at the hateful racism of others and using it to delegitimise and attack those who would critique the hateful racism and oppression perpetrated by Israel.
The ADL is increasingly preaching to and collecting from the choir. Since that choir includes numerous billionaires and both the preaching and the singing are in the service of US empire, the ADL doesn’t have to worry too much about their increasingly frayed credibility. It is not easy to practice the legerdemain that equates anti-Zionists like Rania Khalek, Max Blumenthal, Ali Abunimah, or Rania Masri with the Ku Klux Klan or some skinhead thug covered in swastika tattoos, but the Zionists can afford to look foolish.
However, even Israeli elites are starting to see more of an equivalence between their own leaders and the Nazis. The Israeli ambassador to Switzerland responded to new legislation aimed at left-leaning NGO’s in Israel by posting this famous Göring quote to facebook “Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are under attack and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.” Meanwhile: “Hebrew University lecturer Dr. Ofer Cassif wrote on Facebook that Justice Minister Shaked is ‘Neo-Nazi scum’ and told Army Radio afterward, ‘I think it’s fair to compare Israel to Germany in the 1930s, and not to the years of genocide.’” Gideon Levy, who is admittedly somewhat of a dissident, wrote a New Year op-ed for Haaretz “2015: The Year of Blatant and Unapologetic Israeli Fascism”.
Israel is not the only Fascist state that feeds off the fascism of others. ISIS was the direct result of the US-led invasion and occupation of of Iraq and it thrives in an ongoing US-led destabilisation/permanent-war/slow-genocide strategy that seems to be aimed at all populous Arab countries. Europeans who join ISIS are motivated by experiencing Western racism and economic exclusion combined with seeing the hypocrisy and cruelty of Western military violence against Islamic peoples.
Former ISIS captive Didier François describes his captors as being far more driven by right-wing ideology and hatred of “democracy” than by religious ideology. “Islamofascism” was originally a purely fictional conceit created by neoconservatives seeking to promote war in the Middle East. [Islamofascism seems to fit a pattern of self-fulfilling prophecies made by US ideological “scholars”. These claims are patently false when made, but become true as the supposedly unintended outcome of US interventions. These notions include the “clash of civilisations”, the “arc of instability” and the “end of Iraq”. All of these conceits claimed that there was endemic conflict in the areas where the world’s most significant oil reserves are found. The claims were full of factual and logical errors when first made, and yet after heavy and violent US intervention they became reflected in actual events. While the “clash of civilisations” thesis is still nonsense, all of these claims are now in some respects reified and played out in violence destruction and misery.]
Predictably “Islamofascism” feeds from Islamophobic fascism. The latest Al Shabaab recruitment video, for example, features Donald Trump. Equally, the response to the existence of this new Islamofascism is an explosion of Christofascism, Amerofascism, Ziofascism, Whiteyfascism, Eurofascism, and Liberofascism. Like the Islamofascists these fascists appeal to an imagined past and seek to “make America/Britain/Eretz Israel/Ukraine/etc. great again”. There is also a utopian “end of history” promise of a future of righteous peace which just needs some military action, some redrawn borders and maybe a little bit of lebensraum.
Even satirical morons Barry Shitpeas and Philomena Cunk remarked that ISIS atrocities functioned to destroy the sense of humanity that was beginning to be extended to the millions of refugees fleeing conflict. Trump and Katie Hopkins thrive on the brutality of ISIS.
ISIS doesn’t just promote fear and loathing, it feeds self-righteous chauvinism. People don’t use the term “master race”, but the savagery of Islamist terrorists along with the facts of poverty, conflict and chaos make people of the US and Europe feel highly superior to the peoples of the former colonies.
Of course, those of you who are reading this article are likely to understand that the conflicts in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia are all sparked and fuelled by Western intervention. We know this because if you follow events the evidence cannot be ignored. Many people might not grasp the purpose of these monstrous acts, but Western fingerprints are undeniably all over the masses of murder weapons. As Andre Vltchek wrote of Syria: “The conflict… is so ‘unnecessary’, so bizarre, so obviously triggered by the West and its vile allies and interests.”
Most Westerners, however, do not understand that their own brutal regimes are visiting this suffering on poor nations and peoples. Most Westerners take this as proof of the savagery of those other peoples. Some say it aloud – the Trump followers, the Likudniks, the Daily Mail readers and so forth – and some just think it. The latter, which in the US context would cut right across supposedly vast gulf between “left” and “right”, from those who support John Ellis Bush (“JEB!”), to the Clintonites and the Sandernistas. These folks do not openly proclaim that others are barbarians, they just claim that the USA is the epitome and fount of civilisation, and they feel all the more smug for being too politically correct to say directly what they believe.
Under Hitler, the Germans were also very convinced that they were the embodiment of civilisation. Germans did not look back on their brutal actions in the Herero genocide and think – “we are actually the violent savages, not those we oppress.” Equally, people in the US cannot and do not match the brutal actions of their leaders and soldiers to their notion of who they are. US soldiers raped boys in front of their mothers in Abu Ghraib. It is difficult to think what more it would take to qualify as barbaric. Yet, as Rob Corddry explained on The Daily Show, this does not change the self image of people in the US: “There’s no question that what took place in that prison was horrible, but the Arab world has to realize that the U.S. shouldn’t be judged on the actions of a…well, we shouldn’t be judged on our actions. It’s our principles that matter, our inspiring, abstract notions. Remember: just because torturing prisoners is something we did, doesn’t mean it’s something we would do.”
7 State Repression
The savage empires with their torture and their massacres often fuel the hypocrisy and the exceptionalism by reference to the “freedoms” that they enjoy in the homeland. This too may often be more myth than reality. There is a confirmation bias which takes any affirmation of “traditional” freedoms and liberties as being fundamental and any curbs on freedom to be exceptional and not representative. The reason that this seems true to people is that state repression is not aimed at people who do not pose a threat to the state. When the state becomes fragile it may begin imprisoning journalists or comedians who speak heresy, but the ideal response to such people is to do nothing and act positively to ensure that that they are overwhelmed by having at least ten times as many column-inches and twenty times as much airtime devoted to more patriotic opinions and more loyalty to the social order.
There is a lot of truth to the sense of freedom in the developed Western world. There is a virtuous circle where a regime allows more freedoms because the people are contented and unthreatening and those increased freedoms increase the level of contentment which in turn allows even greater liberalisation. Existing alongside this, however, is another source of loyalty and contentment, which is delusion brought about by propaganda. The two work very well together because you can create enough freedom and material well-being in the homeland that it seems intuitively correct when you claim to be the standard-bearers of human goodness. Thus when you carry out brutal acts of slaughter against foreign peoples it seems perfectly believable when you blame the victims.
Western ideological governance is not so much carrot-and-stick as carrot-and-stick-and-koolaid.
I will return to the “stick”, later. At this point we should note that the “carrot” helps mask the bitterness of the mind-controlling “koolaid”. The carrot is the Bernie Sanders “bribe” which I referred to in part one of this article. The carrot comes in forms like the US “New Deal” or accommodation reached in Western Europe after 1968 which saved capitalism from itself. The problem with the “carrot” is plutocratic distemper. If elite plutocrats are not actively frightened of the consequences of not providing a carrot they tend to resent giving carrot handouts to the masses. Once the carrot is gone, the “koolaid” of regime loyalty becomes very sickly and increasingly hard to swallow.
Contrary to popular belief, empires do not tend to be very good at doling out carrots. Many people, having taken their patriotic koolaid, think that empires are run for the benefit of the homeland. In fact the very nature of empires is to create a set of imperial interests and power relations which detach an imperial elite from the homeland population. The Roman, the Spanish and the British Empires all developed in such a way that inequality and deprivation gripped both the imperial centre and the conquered periphery. As the homeland population becomes less economically significant, as is happening now with the outsourcing of industrial labour, the imperial elite cheerfully destroys the social structure. This is not just out of unreflexive greed, but also because wealth distribution has a democratising effect and elites do not like democracy. Thus the virtuous circle of carrot-and-koolaid is replaced by a vicious circle of deprivation-and-stick.
I will deal with the increasing levels of inequality and economic injustice in the next section, but it is important to highlight the centrality of class relations. Underneath all of the doling out of carrots regimes are always, at base, structured to favour the interests of a ruling class. There is always discontent and dissent among those who see more clearly or whose place in the social order leaves them out of the carrot party. Because of that there is always the stick. In the best carrot-and-koolaid consuming scenario the stick stays out of sight. It is deniable, but ideally the carrot-and-koolaid munchers sense that it is there. They fear it but cannot confront it. If the stick comes out of hiding it puts them off their carrots, and if they don’t enjoy the carrots they will refuse to swallow the koolaid. For some people the stick is always brandished visibly. They get little carrot and they can’t stomach the koolaid so the stick is used to shut them up. A lot of them will drink the sickening koolaid anyway, just out of despair and because they will probably get even more stick if they don’t.
In these metaphoric terms what we have seen is that Western societies is the withering of the carrots. They are small and rubbery, and some people are getting very few. The koolaid, meanwhile, has doubled in sickly sweet strength – it is more effective to some, but more revolting than ever to others. The stick is brandished and used far more widely.
Civil liberties have been seriously eroded everywhere after 2001. People in the US, for example, might have once expected that at some stage the tide would shift back and liberties would be restored, but instead the very institutions that might provided a countervailing impetus have been eroded or blunted. I don’t feel that I need to go into specific detail on measures such as the UK’s prolific CCTV cameras or the US airport security regime, readers are probably just as familiar with the details as I. The one thing that is universal and unprecedented, though, is electronic surveillance (or data collection if you think there is a meaningful distinction).
We should all understand that our precious Western freedoms have always been contingent. You are most welcome to freely express your opinion in a “free-speech zone” but if you do anything that actually seriously disrupts the ruling class you will be subject to pain of some form. This is generally done in legalistic terms, but false charges are commonplace. Often this is not in pursuit of a criminal conviction but just a way of locking people up, bullying them and hurting them. In the US, for example, when major protests occur police departments regularly have a pre-approved budget of millions to cover settlements from lawsuits stemming from misconduct.
As the carrots dry up, and discontent grows, more and more people will discover what the stick feels like. The importance of the dragnet data collection is that politically active people are more and more likely to face charges relating to conspiracy or intent to commit a crime. Now, when those charges are brought to court the prosecutor will have comparatively easy access to years and decades of texts, comments and phone conversations. The prosecutors will be assisted by excellent speech recognition software and algorithms designed to go through everything you have ever allowed to be digitised, not to mention everything your child has ever told to its favourite talking toy.
Realistically speaking, if warrants are used to make this data presentable to court they will be sought only after intelligence offices, police and/or prosecutors have already had a not-so-legal sneak preview. Because computers have already trawled through everything to find things that fall within predetermined criteria of incriminating material, they will find exactly what they are programmed to find. After that the defence will have to rely on the scepticism, goodwill and propriety of the judge and jury. Scepticism may grow as people become more aware of the problem, but goodwill and propriety are dwindling commodities.
In the developed countries we have become subject to greater surveillance by far than any other population in human history. Thus far this has been of more use in shaping public opinion than in dragging dissidents away in the middle of the night. That should not be much of a comfort. The fine control over “messaging” that the “computational politics” of big data is itself fuelling a type of bland tyranny wherein spin doctors can make the masses accept nearly any outrage – a subject to which I will return in my conclusion.
The degradation of traditional Western liberties does not need to be repeated here in full. In my country, for example, an intelligence agency was caught breaking the law by spying on people so the government just passed a new law to retrospectively make the spying legal. This sort of thing is typical not just in the West, but in all countries where “terrorism” provides plausible cover.
France could perhaps be emblematic of the lunacy of it all because they are clamping down on free speech in order to, supposedly, protect free speech. Whilst the entire world was still rallying for free speech and everyone was declaring “I am Charlie”, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala managed to get himself arrested for posting “I feel like Charlie Coulibaly” to facebook. He was charged with incitement to terrorism because Coulibaly was the surname of one of the Charlie Hebdo shooters. Dieudonné was making a clear point about the hypocrisy, but he did not arrest himself. The French authorities were also making a very clear point – a declaration of what they consider to be protected speech and what they consider to be incitement.
The worst spikes in state repression have been seen in the increase of death sentences and executions in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt. Saudi Arabia just put 47 “terrorists” to death in one day and then hung their bodies from gibbets. In the year since lifting an execution moratorium, Pakistan has killed over 200 men, most of whom were labelled as “terrorists”. In Egypt there have been 3 mass death sentences handed down and confirmed in the last 2 years which have left hundreds condemned to die for participation in political activities. Another mass trial of 494 protesters facing the death penalty has been postponed for the 11th time in more than two years.
8 Inequality and “Corporatism”
Some people bandy about the term “corporatism” with considerable ignorance. They simply assume that “corporatism” means rule by big business “corporations” in the US sense of the word. Others like to sneer at the ignorance of such people, but in this case the ignorant are more grounded in the real world than the sophomoric geeks (who should probably stick to arguing about Star Trek or what method of suicide Alan Moore will use if they make another film based on one of his stories). As is so often the case, the ignorant mass opinion is wrong in detail, but broadly makes sense, while the educated opinion is correct in a central aspect but completely oblivious to the larger picture. This is why educated people can be much more twisted and Orwellian in their beliefs. But I digress….
Fascist and postcolonial corporatisms espouse various vertically organised “corporations” as a means of organising and representing the entire populace. This is a highly authoritarian ideal, with each corporation structured hierarchically. It means that a top stratum of society runs everything in the name of various subdivided parts of society, but in effect they become their own separate elite interest. In postcolonial corporatism this meant that the politico-military elites controlled large industrial, extractive and agricultural concerns (often alongside former colonial interests). Whether or not they were the formal owners of enterprise, this politico-military-capitalist would be able to expropriate profits and accumulate capital whilst risk was absorbed by the state.
For Hitler and Mussolini, the former combatants, the ideal was to create a giant army-like machine out of the nation-state, to make it a single organism. Corporatism was the ideology put forward, but as the Parenti quote in part one of this article showed, the reality was a close collaboration of government and capital, with government acting as the muscle of capital against labour. This was not even an invention of the Fascist countries. Despite its liberal ideology opposing such things, the British Empire had built a very close-knit revolving-door sort of relationship between government and the industries of arms, finance, shipping, steel, coal, and oil. Germany and the US had followed in Britain’s footsteps and in some respects Hitler’s empowerment of the industrial elites was a restoration of the central role that they had occupied under the Kaiser.
“Corporatism” is therefore quite a good word for the interpenetration of government and capital we now experience. Like their liberal forebears, neoliberal (anti)praxis is a complete contradiction of the espoused ideals of neoliberalism. Neoliberal globalisation and “liberalisation” is, in fact, the spread of corporatist governance. It is the process of concentrating both capital and political power within a shrinking group of inseparably mixed “private” and “public” elites.
There are many reasons why the rich and powerful feel that the rich and powerful should have all of the power and wealth concentrated in their own hands; why they should be the masters of the universe. Even small business employers tend to be paternalistic at best and at worst hateful of their socioeconomic inferiors. Research shows that wealth has a positive correlation with narcissism and aggression and a negative correlation with empathy. I suspect that there is are even stronger equivalent correlations engendered by one’s position in a political power hierarchy.
Wealth and power are increasingly inseparable. Between speaking fees, directorships and consultancies, those who use power in the right way when they hold office are showered with riches thereafter. They become part of a network of institutions of wealth, power and information/ideology. Within this are think tanks and private institutions that shape or even write government policies like the Council on Foreign Relations; institutions that write legislation like the American Legislative Exchange Council; or they could undertake some of the executive functions of government like the US Federal Reserve or the RAND corporation. These are just examples, of course, but there is interpenetration with lobbying organisations and PR firms. Then there are conspiracy forums such as the Bilderberg Group where the most powerful people in the world meet in secret, but if you suggest that they might actually conspire in these secret meetings (as opposed to merely making small talk) you are tarred as some sort of fantasist.
Within this network are also those enterprises whose business model is reliant on policy, legislation and/or government spending for their revenue. This includes armaments, nuclear and finance industries by their very nature. Other industries choose to pursue a similar path either exclusively or partially. These include mining, oil, agribusiness, food, pharmaceuticals, biotech, aerospace, energy and infrastructure. Other business generate revenue by supplying demand with goods and services or by creating previously non-existent demand through marketing and then filling that demand. Because of their intimate involvement in government these private interests inevitably edge closer and closer to taking the shortest route between point A (collecting taxes) and point B (giving that tax money to executives and shareholders). US government contractors are particularly bold with boondoggles like the f-35 jet, and the insanely corrupt no-bid contracts of the Iraq occupation.
Halliburton subsidiary KBR initially made great wealth from contracts in Viet Nam furnished by Lyndon Johnson (to whom they had given sizeable campaign contributions). In Iraq they were given $39.5 billion in contracts. A 2003 CBS story gives the background:
“The system has been awarding billions of dollars in military contracts to private firms. Among these firms is a Halliburton subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown & Root, which got the oil fire job, and in 1992, authored a study that concluded it would be good to privatize billions of dollars worth of military work. ‘Of course they said it was a terrific idea,’ says Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity, a group that monitors the government for possible corruption. ‘So they helped design the architecture for privatizing a lot of what happens today in the Pentagon when we have military engagements.’
“In 1992, the Department of Defense, under then Secretary of Defense Cheney, commissioned the Halliburton subsidiary to do the study. In 1995, Cheney became the CEO of Halliburton.
“Says Lewis, ‘Why would a defense secretary, former chief of staff to a president and former member of Congress with no business experience become the CEO of a multibillion-dollar oil services company,” asks Lewis. “He was brought in to raise their government contract profile and he did.’
“Halliburton nearly doubled the value of federal contracts it received – from $1.2 to $2.3 billion – during the five years Cheney was its CEO. “I’m not saying it’s illegal,” says Lewis, who points out that many former high-ranking military officers work for firms seeking federal contracts. ‘They set up the system for themselves, and they may be doing it in red, white and blue, but they’re doing quite well.’”
With US interests in particular this is not just an upward redistribution of the wealth of the US masses, it is an appropriation of wealth from everyone on the planet. Almost every nation in the world, including China and Russia, is forced to pay the US some of the money that the US spends on weapons which, in a roundabout fashion, are used to make sure they keep paying. This fiendish system was described in Michael Hudson’s book Super Imperialism. In case you are unable to read the book, Hudson has explained the underlying thesis in 84 seconds here.
Not coincidentally the interests that get to feed at the public trough just so happen to be the means of imperial hegemony. To complete the picture one must also include news and entertainment media, but between arms industry ownership of major media, intelligence agency control of news media, and Hollywood dependence on the Pentagon, that too is well within the same network. I have said it before, and I will say it again, this is an “empire complex” and it is nothing new to this world:
“In 1902 John Hobson noted that the British Empire was a drain on the wealth of the majority of the people of Britain and the majority of the capitalist enterprises of Britain. He wrote: ‘Seeing that the Imperialism of the last three decades is clearly condemned as a business policy, in that at enormous expense it has procured a small, bad, unsafe increase of markets, and has jeopardised the entire wealth of the nation in rousing the strong resentment of other nations, we may ask, ‘How is the British nation induced to embark upon such unsound business’; The only possible answer is that the business interests of the nation as a whole are subordinated to those of certain sectional interests that usurp control of the national resources and use them for their private gain.’
“But the nature of these ‘certain sectional interests’ was far from random: shipping, coal, arms, finance, and military contracting. These were the beneficiaries of empire, but they were also the tools. These are strategic industries. They were the British military-industrial complex – the empire complex if you will. None of these interests were separable from the Crown, nor, more to the point, was the reverse the case.”
Those who use political office to advance the empire complex are richly rewarded. Tony Blair, for example, has a net worth of over £60 million. Bill Clinton is worth about $80 million. Part of this comes in astronomical speaking fees. Blair was once paid £364,000 for two 30 minute talks, and Hillary Clinton’s speaking fees average $230,000. Given that large numbers of people think that Blair should be tried as a war criminal, including his current successor as Labour leader, the high speaking fees and the adulation given to Blair by the rich and the cronies seem to indicate that there is a strong disconnection between the culture and beliefs of ordinary people and those of the elite. In one Marie Antoinette moment, for example, Save the Children had to apologise after having caused outrage by giving Blair a “Global Legacy” award. This was reminiscent of the mass anger, that apparently was unforeseeable in Washington DC, when the Bush administration had the brilliant idea of making Henry Kissinger the head of the 9/11 Commission.
The people at the centre of the empire complex are out of touch and no longer capable of smelling the putrid stench of their own corruption. They do not believe that the law applies to them, and though they might choose to be sentimental about some issues, they clearly do not place any value on the lives of ordinary people in normal circumstances. We have seen an evolution from the banal “Realist” excuses for mass-murder put forward by Henry “One Should Not Mistake Covert Action for Missionary Work” Kissinger; through the naïve attempted sincerity of Madeleine “We Think the Price is Worth It” Albright; to the giggling lunacy of Hilary “We Came. We Saw. He died” Clinton. You may think that it is unfair to compare Clinton’s statement about the death of Gaddafi with Albright’s statement about the deaths of 500,000 children, but Gaddafi was not the only Libyan who died. Clinton’s remarks are by far the scariest because they were premeditated and the sick delight she is taking in the news of Gaddafi’s death is all too evident. Normally even the worst dictators at least put on a front of solemn gravity and Clinton’s twisted pleasure reminds me of nothing so much as the smirk on Saddam Hussein’s face in 1979 as he read a list of “enemies of the state” in a council meeting where many named were present. They were all executed within hours.
French economist Thomas Piketty is right in the basic premise of Capital in the 21st Century: inequality is feeding itself. For structural and psychological reasons elitist inequality acts to concentrate wealth at the same time as becoming ever more deranged. I have referred to it as plutocratic distemper. It is not just driven by greed and megalomania, but by creating a psychosocial milieu in which elitism is natural, vast wealth is always a just desert, and democracy is only ever demagoguery and is a threat to “liberal” oligarchic liberty.
I will not go into detail on elitist governance, and the lies they tell themselves and others to justify plutocracy. It could take up a great deal of time and space. The point is that, thanks to technological development which has created ever larger and more immediate areas of effect for wealth and power, there is a vicious circle of inequality. Like the British Raj, the mechanisms by which ordinary people constrain their rulers have been destroyed by the imperialistic nature of political and economic governance. In many respects Fascism and Nazism replicated those same effects by destroying unions and other aspects of democratic governance, but the effect was the same.
Conclusion – The Whole Kit and Caboodle
I wrote at the beginning of this part of this article that events would keep overtaking me, and they have. The new Bundy siege is just one example. Speaking of anti-intellectualism in the USA, DC Comics also put out an annual in which an editor’s note describes some text as “translated from Pakistanian”. In France people report electoral disappointment for the Front National, but the right-wing party won a record number of votes despite the mainstream lurch rightwards after the Paris attacks.
In addition I have given very short shrift to Central and Eastern European fascism in its various overt and covert forms. Some writers see Ukraine as one front in an antifascist war while Syria is another. NATO has become a Fascist coalition, and perhaps discreetly it always has been. In that sense one can tie everything I have written about to interventions in Syria, Libya, Iraq and even back to the bombing of Serbia.
I have also left out the historical continuities between the anti-Comintern Axis powers and the Cold War era anti-Communist alliances led by the US. Unreconstructed Fascist and Nazi personnel were recruited not just for building rockets, but also for counterintelligence, propaganda and even torture expertise. Klaus Barbie, for example, was sent through the notorious “ratline” of Operation Paperclip and was then recruited by US counterintelligence and used as a torturer in Bolivia. Other Fascists were recruited into anti-communist “stay behind” armies, which would become notorious for conducting false-flag terror attacks and were linked, along with Italian intelligence, to the Bologna train station bombing that killed 85 people.
Something else that I have left out is the subject of militarism. In some ways it is difficult to assess. A lot of places have long had a very high bar of militarism and any increase is generally slow enough as to be imperceptible. The most obvious exception is Japan, where the renaissance of militarism is as striking as it is alarming. In contrast, countries like Egypt and Indonesia have the military woven into every strand of society, but this is nothing new. Mass conscription states like Israel and the Koreas are also innately militaristic. In Israel this has grown like a cancer due to the advent of paramilitary settlers and the aforementioned increasing embrace of violence.
The Anglosphere is most definitely more militaristic than it was in the 1970s. In the UK, Australia and Aotearoa the fetishistic honour and obeisance paid to former servicemen has become and obscene form of worship. People have forgotten that the original returned servicemen’s organisations were explicitly antiwar and that the original national commemorations, which began after the Great War of 1914-18, were against all war. Now the “fallen” are glorified in order to promote war.
For my money, though, the US may be the most militaristic society ever in human history. Their fervour exceeds countries where the actual military is omnipresent, like Israel. Israelis may have fantasies of being a cross between Sparta and Masada, but the banal reality of khaki-clad teenagers with their horny sexting and typical acne-ridden idiocy does not allow the depth of militarist delusion that is indulged in the US. In the US it seems as if every enlisted dweeb is an action movie hero and every high-ranking officer is a personal development guru with almost mystical insight and intellect. It is the latter part that is most surprising, in a way, but it indicates that the authoritarian worship of success that is endemic to the US is being translated into a military idiom. The logical outcome of this was already predicted in Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 satire Starship Troopers. Critics were confused by Verhoeven’s depiction of Fascist consumerism in 1997, but as Calum Marsh wrote in 2013, “now people are finally getting the joke”.
I have missed out many many significant fascistic aspects of our time, but I have tried to be consistent in suggesting that it is the whole that must be judged, not various events, institutions or people. It is the context that makes the person a Fascist, not merely their individual traits words or actions. If someone holding political office in a Fascist regime is not actively rejecting the fascistic aspects of the regime that that are involved in that office, then they are a Fascist. That is why I draw the distinction between Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.
It is not just political office holders, it is also the academics, journalists, business people and normal workers who embrace fascist ideas. However, ordinary people are far less fascistic than elites, including the content creators of the left and alternative media. For example, Democracy Now! and Brave New Films joined the gushing adulation that is pouring out of “progressives” because Obama cried about the little kiddies when, after 7 years in office, he decided to take executive action to curb the insane gun violence problems in the US. In both cases, however, facebook commenters made it very clear that at least they had not forgotten that this Oscar-worthy performance came from a man who regularly kills children. Are these alternative media people Fascists then? I would say that they have to work much harder to earn the right to categorically deny being Fascists.
Ultimately, though, you may well ask why I choose to make any claim about Fascism at all? It is, after all, only a word. Moreover, most ordinary people will just think that you are a bit unhinged to say that there is a new global Fascism that has slowly taken over the world. Yet we do need a word.
There is a coherent ideological movement rightwards that has spread throughout the globe. It is not entirely new, but it can no longer be labeled as neoliberalism, neocolonialism, Western imperialism, globalisation, or any combination thereof. Nor are variants of “totalitarianism” any good.
Italian Fascism once happily embraced a totalitarian identity. If a regime is helpful enough to enunciate a totalitarian norm, it is very easy to criticise them as being totalitarian. The problem is in deciding whether their practices are actually more totalitarian than those who don’t proudly announce that they are totalitarian. There is no good reason to presuppose that people who overtly embrace totalitarian rhetoric are more totalitarian in practice. That is only the beginning of the problems inherent in using the term “totalitarianism”
For totalitarianism to work as a concept we would have to have a very good idea of what is and isn’t the state and have good reasons for making the distinction. Market fundamentalism, for example, could be described as totalitarian because it imposes a total paradigm of power, but it claims that the market’s power is separate from the state. Should that be accepted, and if so why? Or, to use an example that is only half absurd, should we consider all states with a state run education system to be totalitarian? Almost every citizen of these countries is socialised to think the same way about maths, sciences, art, music, history and language. They are given identical standardised instructions on how to think about civics, politics and their obligations and duties as a citizen. To someone with radically different ideological views, might this not be considered totalitarian?
For these reasons the process of labeling a given regime as “totalitarian” is tautological. Certain aspects of the society are deemed totalitarian because they are products of the totalitarianism of the regime, and the regime is diagnosed as being totalitarian because those same aspects are symptoms of the disease. This was very useful to liberal ideologues and self-loving Western chauvinists like Friedrich Hayek and Isaiah Berlin who were able to use it as a way of equating Nazism and Communism while painting Western liberalism as the best of all possible worlds. Because it is tautological the concept of totalitarianism is analytically sterile and the insights offered by thinkers like Hannah Arendt and Sheldon Wolin are like diamonds wrapped in used toilet paper – they are not that hard to get at, but you would be advised to wash the stinky Hayek from your hands afterward (do not touch your eyes, nose or mouth with Hayek-stained hands or you may contract brain rot!)
Fascism is a very good word to use because this ideological phenomenon that has taken over much of the world’s power elite is very compatible with the Fascism and Nazism of old. Not only that, but the suit-wearing, anodyne new Fascists are ideologically, politically and militarily aligned with overt neo-Fascist and Neo-Nazi groups and individuals. Furthermore, when the West bombs or sends troops or uses proxies is it as Fascist aggressors. This is something that the regimes in Russia, Syria and Iran are acutely aware of. I am not saying that to excuse their own authoritarian repression, but it is a fact. They know that they are facing an unfolding World War against Fascism, just as Stalin (who was not a nice person) knew that Fascism/Nazism was the greatest threat to the USSR, to Russia, to socialism and to humanity. He wasn’t wrong. He was a horrible person, but he wasn’t wrong.
Finally, I want to trace briefly how we came to this point.
For a long time people kept leaders from going “full Fascist”. This coincided with the period of comparative equality, humanitarian progression and aspects of democratic governance. This was also a time of intellectual ferment and public engagement. In part I think we owe a debt to the people of Spain, because it was their resistance to the Fascists rebels, and the positive aspects of their revolution, that woke and roused the mass hatred of Fascism that was the natural sentiment amongst people in France, the UK and the US. Beyond that, though, we really do have to thank Adolf Hitler for opening people’s eyes to the full putrescence of unleashed Fascism. In fact, a shocking number of military, commercial and political leaders did not actually think that Nazism was bad, especially in the US, but those people had to be very careful about what they said in public. Fascism was not respectable any more.
In a sense the post-WWII world was inoculated against Fascism, but we haven’t had our booster shot. Not that I think people have become much more sympathetic with fascism. That has certainly started to happen now, but the progress of creating the new Fascism began earlier. I have referred several times to what I term “plutocratic distemper”. This can be related to Piketty’s work on inequality, and it basically indicates that the elite ability of concentrate wealth and power in elite hands has created a feedback loop. They are increasing inequality and social exclusion and the result will be the destruction of society. This happened in Rome’s past when the Senatorial class in the republic started using political power to concentrate ownership by seizing lands theoretically due to be given to retired legionaries. From this arose an economic paradigm of large landholdings (latifundia) owned by oligarchs and worked by slaves. Ordinary people became much less important to the economic activity of the republic. The populares were political enemies of the elitist optimates who were appropriating land for the wealthiest. Populares fought for and secured a subsidised grain dole for the underemployed landless people who moved to the city. Later the dole became free. The contest between optimates and populares was a century of street thugs fighting, lynching, political assassination and civil strife that became a series of civil wars. This destroyed the republic. I would have destroyed the entire Roman polity, no doubt, if the civil wars that followed the death of Gaius Julius Caesar had not been won by Octavian – a man who would rule as princeps Augustus Caesar for a very impressive and relatively stable 4 decades.
I think we have reached a similar point in our history for two reasons. The first is that technology has destroyed the wealth distribution that previously occurred through the selling of labour. Out of both necessity and desire the purchasing power of workers is dominated by goods and services that do not provide a large amount of employment. The “invisible hand” can increase mass consumption, but it cannot redistribute wealth under that paradigm. The consumption can be maintained at high levels through falling prices and built-in obsolescence but that will only accelerate the loss of purchasing power in the long term. Like the Romans before them, ordinary people are becoming peripheral to the economic functioning of society. Their jobs may still be absolutely crucial to society, but they cannot retain their market value.
The second reason is because the elites have become too good at wielding power. They are using what has been labeled “computational politics”. Zeynep Tufekci introduced the idea with these words: “Digital technologies have given rise to a new combination of big data and computational practices which allow for massive, latent data collection and sophisticated computational modeling, increasing the capacity of those with resources and access to use these tools to carry out highly effective, opaque and unaccountable campaigns of persuasion and social engineering in political, civic and commercial spheres.”
The upshot of computational politics is a vast amount of turd polishing. Ideas that are against the common interest are constantly tinkered with, rebranded, repackaged, rephrased, re-rebranded and generally fucked with until people lose the ability to oppose them. Some of the most assiduously polished and gleaming turds are politicians. With their consultants, pollsters, and spin merchants, each has acquired a teflon coating. The fact that Australia’s Tony Abbot actually managed to get into trouble and not slime his way out of it immediately is a testament to his near inhuman ability to alienate and disturb ordinary sane people.
The new Australian Prime Minister has evinced admiration for his Aotearoan counterpart, former Merrill-Lynch currency trader John Key. Before even becoming leader of the “centre-right” National Party Key was implicated in illegally using a religious cult to campaign in contravention of electoral law. Key also developed a clear pattern of frequent lying. In mid-2014 this list of his 150 most important lies was collected. His lies are more venal and petty than the whoppers told by Trump, but as with Trump he is never actually concerned with what is true, only what he can say that will give him the greatest gain. He does not ever suffer negative consequences from these lies, and may be personally unable to fully distinguish the difference between truth and lies.
Key’s dishonesty should have killed his political career, but he would literally have to start killing babies on camera to spark any real consequences. He became an object of international ridicule when he repeatedly pulled a waitresses ponytail. It became more sinister when it was revealed that he has a habit of compulsively touching young girls’ ponytails. If you think that this might cause him to keep a low personal profile you would be wrong. He once again became the butt of John Oliver jokes when he went on commercial breakfast radio and revealed, among other things, that he has peed in the shower and does not “trim his downstairs” before he became a little bit evasive in discussing his habits of masturbation. Not content with leaving it there, the Right Honourable John Key would later go on an even more low-brow morning radio show to do a stunt in a cage where he was asked to pick up a bar of soap and chose to play along with the hilarious implied prison rape joke.
Key gets away with this stuff, which is all cleared in advance, because he has constructed an ordinary bloke image. His actions are very political, and very right-wing, but his persona is devoid of all politics. With considerable calculation he acts like he is not even the holder of high office even while he flaunts his high status and power. He depoliticises his politics in a way that old Fascists would have admired, but which is also appealing to a jaded population that is deeply distrustful of political ideologies.
This antipolitical trend is also seen in Guatemala where they elected a comedian to be president. Jimmy Morales describes himself as a “common man”. His politics are right-wing and he is accused by rights groups of being racist, sexist and homophobic, but he acts as if he has no politics. His campaign manifesto was six pages long and he argued that his lack of experience was his greatest asset.
Key and Morales are also like Trump. Their lack of coherence makes them immune to the vestiges of democracy that remain in the electoral systems of their countries. Their opponents are forced into the same position just to compete. Coherent politics has already become a liability. Trump doesn’t just use a big lie technique, he uses a big joke technique because saying utterly outrageous things and sticking by them is much easier, less risky and less costly than trying to make real observations.
That is how we have reached this point. This plutocratic distemper has created a kakistocracy (rule by the worst) which is a new form of Fascism. The Fascism will destroy itself eventually, but the longer it lasts the more it threatens our civilisation, our species, and even our planet.
Kieran Kelly blogs at On Genocide.