The midterms are coming and this is a good time to think about the power of elections. Not as an expression of our power, because the wants of ordinary people have no influence over national policy, but of the power that elections hold over us. You would think that able citizenship starts and stops with voting.
There is a war going on for which the United States bears no little responsibility (orchestrating the 2014 Maidan Revolution), bears responsibility for its continuance (weapons supply and Russian sanctioning), but bears no responsibility for attempts to negotiate an end (it has made none).
We needn’t bother ourselves with this. It’s not important. Everything is taken care of. Just stay glued to the polls. Election polling is to political elections as the Daily Racing Form is to horse racing. It keeps you in the game.
Everything we do — everything Treasury, State, Defense, and all the letter agencies do — is in the service of US capitalist imperialism. Everything all US presidents do, of either party, is in the service of US capitalist imperialism. It’s not a part time effort. (Mark Twain was a member of the American Anti-Imperialist League from 1901 until his death in 1910. He joined because, “I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines.”) The anti-imperialists have long since lost to the imperialists.
We don’t self-describe our country in these terms. Imperialism has a bad connotation. Doesn’t sound democratic. So we concentrate on something else. Something nicer. We are a force for good in the world. We are good, and our enemies are bad.
Russia is not our only enemy. In true godfather style, any country that resists our authority also becomes an enemy. The use of “our”, as in our country, is a simplification limited to geography and citizenship. We know ordinary people have no say in the running of the country.
What might elude us is that ordinary people are victims of class warfare, because we’re not supposed to think that there are competing class interests in our country, like that between the 1% and the bottom 50%. (Between capitalists and workers, or, in corporate terms, between employers and employees). The two groups are not even equal in wealth, despite the strong 50 to 1 odds. The wealth owned by the top 1% of the population is about 15 times greater than the wealth owned by the bottom 50% of the population. That stretches the difference to 750 to 1. So we know who’s winning the class war.
The lack of understanding and reaction to this resembles the man-on-the-street gag, where the interviewer asks, what do you think is the cause of the ignorance and apathy of the average citizen, the answer being, I don’t know and I don’t care! In defense of that average citizen, public responsibility to know and care about policy has been chiseled away.
The role relegated to the common person is to signal approval through the vote, which remains very important. Getting out the vote, as a way of affirming the rulership, was just as important in the totalitarian USSR, even though there was only one candidate. Your vote is less an indication of desired choice (you may dislike both) than it is a validation of the system itself. After you vote —which you are to be thankful for — you should remain docile and obedient.
There is a permanent power behind the transient procession of seat-filling politicians. It is variously known as the national security state, or Deep State, acting as a shadow government. We may sense its presence when we wonder why Congress has lost its authority to declare war.
We’re told we should love our country, but what if people didn’t love their country so much? Did German Nazis love their country? Of the tens of millions killed in religious wars, did the killers love their God? Maybe we should rethink what it means to love something that 1) cannot love you back, and 2) that can make you a part of something that offends your conscience.
What usually happens when conscience comes up against the state? Ostracization, fines, jail time. But sometimes the state is compelled to change, however gradually. It’s what ended state-sponsored slavery, expanded women’s and civil rights, brought the Vietnam War to a close. It is only through individual acts of conscience that such notions as equality, justice, and democracy are born.
Is it the purpose here to maintain that the American people are better than their country? No. More. To maintain that people everywhere (including Russia and all our other enemies) are better than their country because once people cede their individual power to a centralized power beyond their control, an incentive to misuse that power is created. People do not make war. Governments do.
The Black Lives Matter movement is a response to police brutality. Both things exist. There is a BLM movement, and there is police brutality. We can disagree about the amount, and nature, of the brutality, but not on its existence. At the low end, it’s the proverbial few bad apples. At the high end, it’s a manifestation of the system itself.
Let’s just consider the best case — a few bad apples — and ask, why should we continue to let a system run itself that consistently produces a few bad apples?
If a system proves itself incapable of dealing with its internal contradictions, the alternative must lie outside the system. Police are a necessity in our society. Various forms of civilian oversight are sometimes implemented, but there is a problem here. Oversight is not control. It lacks power to mediate an insular, authoritative system that by its very nature is resistant to change. It seems logical that, if police brutality is persistent at any level, the way to balance the enormity of police power with great responsibility is through absolute civilian authority over police.
We have some experience with these out-of-balance things at the national level. Whenever there is a breathtaking federal problem to unravel, Independent Commissions begin to appear. The impression created is that of a complete separation and independence from the halls of power. The representatives of these various commissions come, with few exceptions, from the very halls of power that they are presumed to be separated from. It should not be surprising, then, when commissions of this type find conclusions that are tolerable to the government edifice. We know it as “whitewashing”.
We must be ever cognizant of the conflict between the individual and ruling systems of power. It is a permanent feature for which there is no known remedy. That “…Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” (Declaration of Independence) demonstrates that we have willingly placed ourselves under state authority, but that authority must continually justify itself to the individuals it rules over, as the Declaration goes on to spell out.
In a way, the Declaration can be used against itself (“…Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…”), surely unanticipated by the writers. But if we couldn’t hold it to its word, it would be rendered a document to be discarded after use. Closely analogous to this are Chief Prosector Justice Robert Jackson’s eloquent words in his opening statement before the Nuremberg Tribunal:
“We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.”
Holding this to the word, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was not only illegal by violating the UN Charter (admitted by then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan), but it was guilty of the very same precedent-setting crime the Nazis were prosecuted for, a war of aggression, labeled by the Tribunal as the supreme international crime. (Justice Jackson was clearly wrong.)
How to reconcile this duplicity? Hans Morgenthau, a leading Cold War international relations scholar, found a novel way. It’s tricky but amounts to myths winning the battle of memory by outweighing contradictory events.
He posited a “transcendent purpose” in the original United States to bring peace and freedom to the world. Aware that the historical record was extremely inconsistent with this “transcendent purpose”, he said this was only an apparent contradiction. How? “Reality”, as he defined it, is the unachieved national purpose as our minds record its history. What actually happened — the historical record — is the “abuse of reality”.
He added that confusing the one for the other is the same error atheism makes, namely, holding religion to the history of what actually happened (abuse of reality) instead of its doctrinal history as imprinted in our minds (reality).
His point is not easily dismissed. It offers insight into how our perceptions are formed. It also draws attention to how belief in a strong state is akin to religious belief. The state as religion! Explains a lot.
James Rothenberg resides in New York State, United States.