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 the 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-protectors from Standing Rock about the homeward migration of imperial police tools and methods (of course, Native American activists might remind you that the means and culture of overseas imperial conquest and repression were first developed in the U.S. military’s original genocidal ethnic-cleansing of indigenous North Americans).
The Great Demonic Suction Tube
At the same time, the military budget eats up vast resources needed to build a welfare state that could help ordinary U.S. citizens participate meaningfully in “their” purported exemplary democracy. “We the people” cannot pay for the good social-democratic things that most U.S.-Americans want – things like single-payer health insurance, free college, giant public works and green jobs programs, and a broadly expanded social safety net – while they (well, their plutocratically selected “representatives”) continue to dedicate 54 percent of federal discretionary spending to paying for a colossal, historically unmatched global military empire that carries the world’s single largest institutional carbon footprint while accounting for 40 percent of the world’s military spending, maintaining at least 800 military bases spread across more than 80 foreign countries, and keeping (in David Vine’s words) “troops or other military personnel in about 160 foreign countries and territories.”
It’s an old problem. As Martin Luther King, Jr. explained in his famous Riverside Church speech on April 4, 1967, America will “never invest the necessary funds or energies” to end poverty and domestic economic insecurity so long as its military machine “continue[s] to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.”
Someone should tell Bernie Sanders. Again and again, the “independent” (progressive Democrat) Senator from Vermont cites the Scandinavian nations of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden as his social policy role models without mentioning that these countries spend comparably miniscule portions of their national budgets on the military.
The War Budget as Class Rule
The war budget’s trumping of the social democracy budget is, among other things, a democracy issue in the “homeland.” Imagine the freedom and democracy dividend that would flow from the United States finally honoring majority public opinion by making health care a human right with the passage of Medicare for All. Millions of U.S. workers are afraid to say, write, or do anything their bosses might disapprove of on or off the job. The dependence of employees on their bosses for their health insurance has all-too rarely noted authoritarian implications. The self-described homeland and headquarters of global freedom is a country in which you put not just your job but also your health care coverage and often your family’s health coverage at risk merely by saying, writing or doing anything your workplace superiors find objectionable.
The kinds of basic activities that can jeopardize you and your loved ones’ medical coverage are endless. They include trying to form a union, participating in a work stoppage, putting up a Facebook post against racism, backing a political candidate your employer dislikes, attending an environmentalist protest or even just dressing in a way that irritates a boss or letting it be known that you have a better way to perform some work task. First Amendment rights of free speech and public assembly don’t mean much when exercising them can cost you your job, or your health care and that of your family.
It isn’t just about health care, of course. There’s an intimate relationship between the strength of a nation’s left-handed social welfare state and its ordinary citizens’ capacity and willingness to fight for their own interests and/or the common good. It’s not for nothing that you can’t receive food stamps while engaged in a labor strike in the U.S. The American business class used its influence to prohibit state food assistance to striking workers long ago. Capitalists know that working people’s marketplace, workplace, and political bargaining power are enhanced by the existence of a strong government safety net, which reduces the hazard workers face when they challenge capitalist authority. Big business has pushed through the dismantlement and delegitimization of social welfare programs for decades, in no small part because capitalists-as-employers want, in political science professor Frances Fox Piven’s words, “to make long hours of low-wage work the only available option for many.”
The roll-back and pre-emption the welfare state net carries a double windfall for the U.S. capitalist class: (1) slashing social expenditures and programs saves the rich tax payments to support and uplift the poor and common good; (2) the-working-class majority has less power to resist and challenge the wealthy Few’s power when there’s no strong, left-handed welfare state backing it up.
Along with the plutocratic policy-ordained collapse of U.S. unions and collective bargaining, the comparative weakness of the U.S. welfare state is a key factor behind the long stagnation of wages and the nation’s extreme levels of economic, social, and political inequality. The giant military budget and “suction tube” is a key part of that weakness.
To make matters worse, the military state and its many political and intellectual champions justify the Pentagon’s exorbitant taxpayer bill by appealing to nationalistic values paraded in such a way as to blunt popular consciousness and anger regarding class and other “homeland” disparities. Proper nationalist homage to “our” troops and veterans – to the giant U.S. military empire– requires us to put aside our supposedly minor and selfish grievances against domestic class rule, racism, the police and prison state, and corporate pollution, etc. We must drop such trifling concerns to demonstrate proper allegiance to “one nation, under God, indivisible, with,” supposedly, “liberty and justice for all.” So what if real liberty and so-called justice are reserved primarily for those with a lot of wealth – for Greenwald’s “some”?
“The Military Keynesian Alternative”
It’s no accident that the U.S. business “elite” preferred guns over butter when it came to sustaining and sparking the U.S. economy with government outlays after the Great Depression and World War II. It was understood across the U.S. establishment that large-scale government spending was required to keep U.S. and global capitalism afloat after the war. The only question was what kind of spending would best provide this state-capitalist function: guns (militarism) or (social welfare) butter? The answer was the former. Massive spending on empire, war, and the preparation for war provided a useful way for the U.S. government to stimulate demand and sustain the corporate political economy without threatening business-class power and wealth. As the leading capitalist magazine Business Week candidly reflected in early 1949:
“There’s a tremendous social and economic difference between welfare pump-priming and military pump-priming… Military spending doesn’t really alter the structure of the economy. It goes through the regular [corporate state] channels. As far as a businessman is concerned, a munitions order from the government is much like an order from a private customer. But the kind of welfare and public works spending that [liberals and leftists favor] … does alter the economy. It makes new channels of its own. It creates new institutions. It redistributes wealth… It changes the whole economic pattern.” (emphasis added)
As Noam Chomsky explained four and a half decades later:
“Business leaders recognized that social spending could stimulate the economy, but much preferred the military Keynesian alternative —for reasons having to do with privilege and power… The Pentagon system’s form of industrial policy does not have the undesirable side-effects of social spending directed at human needs. Apart from unwelcome redistributive effects, the latter policies tend to interfere with managerial prerogatives; useful production may undercut private gain, while state-subsidized waste production (arms, Man-on-the-Moon extravaganzas, etc.) is a gift to the owners and managers, to whom any marketable spin-offs will be promptly delivered. Social spending may also arouse public interest and participation, thus enhancing the threat of democracy; the public cares about hospitals, roads, neighborhoods, but has no opinions about the choice of missile and high-tech fighter planes. The defects of social spending do not taint the military-Keynesian alternative.” (Noam Chomsky, World Orders Old and New, 1994, 100-101).
We should also factor in the Fox-Piven point: social-welfare safety net programs and spending give the working-class majority more freedom, more back-up, to resist ruling business class power and demands within and beyond the workplace.
It’s the Opposite
Meanwhile, I’d like some sports announcer or HyVee’s public relations director to explain to me exactly how the U.S. military’s savage crucifixion of Southeast Asia (with an Asian death toll as high as 5 million) during the 1960s and 1970s (in a one-sided war of U.S. invasion to prevent a poor peasant nation from following its own independent path of socially just development), how the U.S. military’s destruction of Iraq (1991 to present) and Libya (2011), and how the killing of thousands of civilians by U.S. drones in the Muslim world have increased ordinary Americans’ freedom at home?
If anything, it’s the opposite. The American Empire’s terrifying and oppressive, widely loathed presence and position around the world puts U.S. citizens at risk of terrorist “blowback” at home and abroad. The U.S. is the overwhelming choice (for damn good reasons) of world citizens polled by Gallup on the question of which country represents the biggest threat to peace on the planet. How would U.S. citizens like to live in constant fear of a foreign power’s killer drones and jets overhead and/or its special forces paramilitaries in a nearby town and/or its nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers just offshore? “Our” military’s nasty habits of invading and occupying other “sovereign” nations, supporting vicious regimes (Saudi Arabia, Israel, Colombia, Ukraine, etc.), dictators and absolutists, and blowing up women, children, and villages around the planet makes U.S.-Americans less, not more, safe and secure. People don’t take kindly to that kind of treatment.
Less safe, it is important to add, from Big Brother at home. The wars and “blowback” – terrorist attacks on U.S. citizens and military personnel at home and abroad – that our frankly terrorist Empire (Google up my name and “Bola Boluk,” “Highway of Death,” and “Fallujah” to read accounts of mass-murderous U.S. terrorism) provoke create endless pretexts and opportunities for U.S. authorities to attack civil liberties and foster an authoritarian culture of “national unity” that silences dissent at home.
I often thank veterans – the numerous ones I’ve met who have turned against the Empire they once served and who have since chosen instead to serve the people in their struggle against the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, race, and empire at home and abroad.
Help Paul Street keep writing here.
Paul Street is an independent radical-democratic policy researcher, journalist, historian, author and speaker based in Iowa City, Iowa, and Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of seven books to date: Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: a Living Black Chicago History (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010); (with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011); and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014). Paul writes regularly for Truthdig, Telesur English, Counterpunch, Black Agenda Report, and Z Magazine.
from the archives:
Chris Hedges: The Decline of the American Empire and The Rise of China (with Alfred McCoy)