Big Brother in the Aisles of HyVee
Repeat a lie often enough, the conventional Nazi propaganda wisdom ran, and it will become an accepted truth.
This last Veterans Day weekend, I couldn’t watch a sporting event, listen to a car radio, or even go shopping at the local grocery store without hearing a Great American Lie repeated over and over.
Sports announcers, radio talk-show hosts, commercials, and even a recorded voice blasted into the aisles of the HyVeee supermarket told me again and again that I owed my great American “freedom” to veterans and current enlistees of the U.S. military – in other words, to the Pentagon.
We are free to attend football and basketball games, I was told, because of our military veterans, thanks to the U.S. military.
We get to go shopping, the recorded voice at HyVee instructed me, because of “our” military. So “thank a veteran.”
Leaving my local grocery store last Sunday, I almost expected to see U.S. Marines guarding the perimeter of the parking lot so that terrorists couldn’t slaughter grateful citizens as we tried to purchased provisions. Was that an Army Rangers team in the frozen foods section?
Liberty and Justice for Some
And how much cherished freedom do U.S. Americans really enjoy in the U.S.-American “homeland,” home to the largest mass incarceration system in human history and to a giant, burgeoning, and lethal corporate police and surveillance state? Some Americans seem to have quite a bit more liberty than others, that’s for sure. Real freedom exists mainly for the nation’s upper One Percent, which owns well more than 90 percent of the nation’s wealth. The holdings include much of the political class and a highly concentrated corporate and commercial media that generates images and narratives that “manufacture [mass] consent” to that savage inequality while selling an endless stream of consumer goods that help ruin livable ecology.
The selfish and reckless financial manipulations and transgressions of the wealthy Few carry few criminal penalties even when they clearly ruin the lives of millions of Americans, but poor inner-city drug dealers get sent to prison for years for selling piddling amounts of narcotics. Rich people who purchase, use, or sell illicit drugs hire fancy lawyers to stay out of jail and he felony record databases. Hence the penetrating title of Glenn Greenwald’s neat 2012 book: With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful.
Another useful volume on this highly racialized class hypocrisy is Matt Taibbi’s The Divide: American Injustice in an Age of the Wealth Gap (2014). Taibbi exposed a “legal schizophrenia” that relentlessly punishes the poor but shows mercy for Wall Street. Reflecting on the Obama administration’s refusal to arrest top banksters, Taibbi found that the U.S. legal system exhibits a two-faced double standard – “letting major systemic offenders walk, bypassing the opportunity for important symbolic prosecutions [but]. . . putting the smallest of small fry on the rack for negligible offenses.” After detailing numerous cases of massive high-level financial fraud that escaped prosecution, Taibbi showed how ghetto residents are strip-searched for “blocking pedestrian traffic” and how public assistance applicants are forced to let drug-spooking investigators poke through their closets and cabinets. Poor U.S. women get jail time for lying about whether they live with a boyfriend or receiving welfare overpayments. The police arrest a man for carrying a joint but not a banker who supplies international drugs lords with billions of dollars.
The Public is Powerless
Meanwhile, the nation’s political system amounts to an open plutocracy wherein concentrated business power generally gets whatever it wants from government while the progressive, left-leaning and social-democratic working-class majority almost never gets any of the policies it desires. Majority opinion is technically irrelevant in a nation where the (ex-)citizenry has been turned into a “corporate-managed electorate” (Sheldon Wolin) whose supposedly meaningful input comes for two minutes in a voting booth in carefully stage-managed big money-major party-narrow-spectrum and candidate-centered electoral spectacles once every two or four years.
Corporate and financial cash, connections, personnel, and blackmail have gummed up the workings of the nation’s political, legal, educational, and criminal justice systems. This plutocratic sickness runs through U.S. politics and society like bad cholesterol. It chokes the arteries of the body politic, turning “our” ballyhooed “democracy” into an empty shell.
Don’t take it just from an openly Left radical. There’s a considerable mainstream political science and investigative journalist literature confirming that the U.S. is a de facto corporate and financial dictatorship in which the wishes of the populace are regularly cancelled and insulted by concentrated wealth. Summarizing the basic findings of this literature, distinguished liberal political scientists Benjamin Page (Northwestern) and Martin Gilens (Princeton) report in their new book Democracy in America? that:
“the best evidence indicates that the wishes of ordinary Americans actually have had little or no impact on the making of federal government policy. Wealthy individuals and organized interest group – especially business corporations – have had much more political clout. When they are taken into account, it becomes apparent that the general public has been virtually powerless…The will of majorities is often thwarted by the affluent and the well-organized, who block popular policy proposals and enact special favors for themselves…Majorities of Americans favor specific policies designed to deal with such problems as climate change, gun violence…inadequate public schools, and crumbling bridges and highways…[and favor] various programs to help provide jobs, increase wages, help the unemployed, provide universal medical insurance, ensure decent retirement pensions, and pay for such programs with progressive taxes. Most Americans also want to cut ‘corporate welfare.’ Yet the wealthy, business groups, and structural gridlock have mostly blocked such new policies [and programs].”
Thanks to this “oligarchy,” as Page and Gilens unabashedly call it, the United States ranks at or near the bottom of the list of rich nations when it comes to numerous core indications of social health: economic disparity, intergenerational social mobility, racial inequality, racial segregation, infant mortality, poverty, child poverty, life expectancy, violence, incarceration, depression, mass literacy and numeracy, environmental sanity, and more. Economic globalization and labor-displacing technology are part of what plagues the U.S., Page and Gilens note, but “all other advanced countries have faced [those] same pressures” and “nearly all of them have done much better than we have at” limiting inequality.” Those countries have used “a range of egalitarian public policies to spread the gains from trade and technology more widely, allowing many more of their citizens to benefit.”
Thanks to the ideological power of the American oligarchy, moreover, U.S. business elites have advanced the false notion that workers and the poor are personally to blame for their dire straits more successfully than have capitalists and their servants in any other nation.
Page and Gilens are highly privileged and tenured academics who enjoy remarkable and autonomous control of their own work lives. That and the fact that they aren’t Marxists, or some other kind of anti-capitalist radicals means that they have nothing to say about a very underestimated way in which the United States is not a democracy. As the radical economist Richard Wolff likes to remind us, ordinary working-class and working-age Americans spend most of their waking lives on the job, under the authoritarian and often despotic supervision of employers, to whom workers must rent out their labor power to obtain the means of exchange with which to purchase basic life necessities. When it ceases to be profitable or otherwise “cost-effective” to retain workers, employers throw them out onto the wage-suppressing “reserve army of labor,” turning millions of once productive engaged citizens into “surplus Americans.” Until its workers themselves own, direct, and structure their own workplaces (and labor processes) as “associated producers,” democratically determining the purpose and nature of their productive activities and appropriating the surplus generated for themselves and the broader common good, it is difficult to think of a society as meaningfully democratic.
The Right-Handed State
Thanks to the relative scarcity and weakness of “egalitarian public policies” in the U.S. compared to other rich nations, American “social control” (class rule) relies on police-state repression to a relatively greater degree. The weaker the velvet-gloved “left hand of the state” (as Pierre Bourdieu called the social-democratic and inclusive parts of modern government) in maintaining social order, the stronger the iron- fisted “right hand of the state.”
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) permits the U.S. military to arrest anyone, including U.S. citizens, and detain them indefinitely without due process (and even to send them to torture chambers in any foreign country) on suspicion of offering “substantial support” to those organizations determined “terrorist” by the Pentagon. The federal executive branch is free to draw up and act on kill lists that include U.S. citizens.
The NDAA also codifies into law the participation of the military in domestic policing, violating a libertarian U.S. principle that goes back to the nineteenth century. The principle holds little meaning in a time when U.S. police departments have become militarized (and para-militarized) and high-tech private “security” companies loaded with military veterans proliferate across the “homeland” as well the imperial hinterland.
Oligarchy is not freedom. A corporate police state is not popular self-rule.
Empire’s Service to “Homeland” Inequality
What is the role of the military in all this? Where to begin? Beyond what I’ve already suggested, the Pentagon System’s giant budget of so-called defense contracts is a potent mechanism for upward wealth distribution to the politically powerful owners and top managers of high-tech military firms like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Boeing. The military budget is a colossal form of corporate welfare that helps make the plutocratically entrenched Few yet more opulent and powerful.
The U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marines have long worked to expand and protect the global capitalist “open door” system of untrammeled investor rights. By opening-up and protecting U.S.-based multinational corporations’ access to foreign markets, labor supplies, and raw materials, the Pentagon helps capital bid down the price of labor power and win weakened government regulations, unions, and lower taxes in the U.S. “homeland.”
Imperial Repression Migrates Home
The military’s endless foreign wars and interventions are a continual source of tools and techniques for repression of the restless Many at home. From the development of “nonlethal crowd control” technologies (lethal for the right of public assembly) like the Long Range Acoustic Device (sound cannon) to the formation of urban counter-insurgency strategies and latest means and methods of surveillance, tracking, and interrogation, the military’s foreign missions are a great boon from the project of suppressing “homeland” dissent.
“The fetters imposed on liberty at home,” James Madison noted in 1799, “have ever been forged out of weapons provided for defense against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers abroad.”
Just over one century later, another great American thinker, Mark Twain, pondered the United States’ brutal pacification of the Philippines. Writing an imagined history of 20th century America, Twain reflected on how the United States’ “lust for conquest” had “destroyed the Great Republic” since “trampling upon the helpless abroad had taught her, by a natural process, to endure with apathy the like at home; multitudes who had applauded the crushing of other peoples’ liberties, lived to suffer for their own mistake.”
“Indeed,” the distinguished American historian Alfred W. McCoy notes, “just a decade after Twain wrote those prophetic words, colonial police methods migrated homeward from the Philippines to provide models for the creation of an all-American internal security apparatus.” That process has continued to the present day.
Have you ever been surveilled, my fellow American, by a drone? I have, right in the “democratic” U.S., heartland, protesting the construction of the eco-cidal Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in southeastern Iowa last year.
Ask the DAPL-fighters and water- and climate-protector