On a wintry Saturday in January a motley crew of disgruntled protestors took up a position in front of one of the many stark and faceless towers of Midtown Manhattan. The tower rose vertiginously in the bright afternoon sky, an anonymous vertical field of black glass gridded together by strips of steel. The rugged clan of antinomians assembled in the vast stone exterior of the building, a kind of public anteroom between the rabid streets and the polished marble foyer of the building. They lined posters against the plinths of abstract corporate art rising into the air above the courtyard. The poster board was scrawled with urgent slogans, all of them referencing the ninth anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti. In the decade since, an island already devastated by conventional colonialism was victimized by a new incarnation of exploitation, this one clad in humanitarian guise.
The dissidents shouted to fleet-footed passersby, “Where’s the money? Where’s the money?” The money they referred to, they assumed, was somewhere above them, stored in the vast cloud-draped coffers of the Clinton Foundation, which peered down onto Sixth Avenue from its nonprofit enclave high above. The foundation stands accused of presiding over the shoddy reconstruction efforts and vanished millions in targeted relief funding from global donors, though the shouts of its accusers were predictably out of earshot.
It is no coincidence that the Clinton Foundation, and other effective fronts for establishment power, prefer to hide their business down the indecipherable corridors of corporate rule. There has always been a great fear among the rich of the anonymous, faceless mob, otherwise known as the demos, the majority or, in tonier digs, “My fellow Americans,” which it sees as a kind of roving horde, genetically programmed to deceive and thieve. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises provides powerful imagistic depictions of the elite nightmare of the unhinged rabble. As Gotham is capsized by evil terrorist Bane, the underclass predictably run amok, conducting ecstatic looting sprees in Park Avenue mansions and establishing a farcical court of justice that embodies mob rule as it casts one elite after another onto the cracking ice of the East River.
Naturally, Batman is summoned to save the ruling class in the name of law and order. Like most capitalist depictions, the dictatorship of the proletariat comes off looking like an abject band of savages, intoxicated by the first draughts of power (a commodity best managed by elites, who have experience lording it over the masses). To prevent such horror, a useful ruse must be invented to ensure the one percent are never subject to the sight of some crazed bête noire calling, “Gotham, take back your city!” to the scurvy hordes, toothless and trembling with riotous visions of plunder.
The rich harbor so much angst about the poor because they are consciously exploiting them, enacting the indefensible on the defenseless. The jet-set are still seated up in the penthouses of metropolis, impassively deleting large numbers from spreadsheets, not caring those numbers represent lives on the street, which eventually morph into the favelas that must be vigilantly policed. Of course, that doesn’t mean shantytowns can’t be profitably exploited. During the 2010 World Cup, “safe streets” were organized so tourists could comfortably gaze upon the quotidian lives of the South African poor, like curious zoologists taking notes on some new species. Regular tours of sanitized favelas are provided for fascinated world travelers in the hills above Rio, the Potemkin villages of neoliberalism.
The fear of the mob is a central feature of American history. President Trump’s fear of immigrants is a subcategory of this, and is nothing new. Listen to this Citations Needed podcast for an eye-opening exploration of the real history of our “nation of immigrants.” The founding fathers worked tirelessly to deny majority rule. American foreign policy has assiduously policed the frontiers of empire to ensure no mass movement emerges to challenge its hegemony. Party politics feverishly enjoins us to band behind the lesser evil to save our frail democracy from certain peril. Batteries of imperial solicitors have billed millions of hours intensely architecting an impenetrable latticework of global trade laws to render impotent the domestic protections of sovereign populations. And the corporate media have exhaustively advertised the ideologies of power through tightly managed distribution channels.
The impressive feature of the United States is the length of time with which a minority of elites have controlled the opinions of hundreds of millions of citizens. Voting for the predetermined representatives of the powerful twice a decade has been enough to fix some citizens with the belief that they are masters of their destiny, and others with the resigned understanding that they are subject to the destiny of the masters. Between elections, citizen-consumers subsist on the material goods purchased on credit as they graze through pastures of prefabricated junk, hastily assembled by wage-slaves in the Pearl River Delta for export to the crumbling metropole.
“The rich harbor so much angst about the poor because they are consciously exploiting them, enacting the indefensible on the defenseless. The jet-set are still seated up in the penthouses of metropolis, impassively deleting large numbers from spreadsheets, not caring those numbers represent lives on the street, which eventually morph into the favelas that must be vigilantly policed…”
As Noam Chomsky points out in Profit Over People, the American revolution never really addressed the problems of class that it brought with it across the Atlantic. The landed gentry, the lawyers and wealthy merchants, put the legal structure of the country together, while the impoverished subsistence farmers and the like were allowed to consent to the wise–and wisely self-serving–verdicts of the new ruling class. Based on property rights, the people who owned the country were set up to rule, as President of the Continental Congress John Jay advised. A free franchise would understandably imperil the property assets of the upper classes, a fate that the founders sought to avoid at all costs while still retaining a patina of populism. After all, it was a class of slave owners who penned the line that all men are created equal and the founders of a ‘republic’ who decided that only white male property owners could vote in it.
Popular Elite Disguises
The double-tongued gene has been in our DNA since the beginning. More than Republicans, the Democratic Party has mastered the devilish arts of serving elitism while manipulating populism, to reference a line by the late Christopher Hitchens. The Democrats seized upon the demographic game in the early Sixties, eventually backing a landmark immigration bill that would transform the complexion of the country, marginalizing the white supremacist faction the Republicans had fused themselves to. The Democrats, having lost southern whites, aligned themselves with minorities. Not at all a bad strategy but for one flaw. The Democrats have committed themselves to minorities of every stripe, no exceptions, including the group that James Madison called, “the minority of the opulent.”
Elite capital is itself a minority. And this is the minority that Democrats truly serve; the rest are largely pacified with red-tape half-measures and rhetorical sops. Ethnic minorities must be protected against institutional and individual racism. Transgender minorities must be protected against myopic binary sexism. Gays must be protected against homophobia and legal discriminations. And corporate elites must be protected against the poor. It is this last axiom that sours the profile of Democrats. This is unlikely to change, for as corporate hero Bill Clinton once limned when describing how left-leaning voters would, in the final analysis, vote Democrat, “They have nowhere else to go.” Wherever they turn, minorities are left to vote for the one predominantly white minority that will betray them.
Foreigners at the Frontier
Whenever and wherever the majority rears its Medusan head, the minority of the opulent and their foot soldiers are there to suppress it. This is especially evident in Latin America, which it declared to be its own backyard with the Monroe Doctrine. The Washington establishment has worked indefatigably to put down popular rebellions that threaten to capsize the comprador elites the U.S. has entrained in power.
At first the U.S. seized power by pretending to defend the South against European imperialism. Then it was protecting Latin America from Communism. Now it argues the South needs Chicago School medicine to straighten out its economic course. In just this century, we’ve seen the rollback of numerous left-leaning movements and governments. After rejecting the IMF and restoring its economic health, Argentina is back in the hands of the creditors. Brazil’s Washington-managed elitists have finally jailed onetime steelworker Lula Ignacio Lula da Silva, impeached his successor, and elected a fascist Punchinello promising law and order, a Latin strongman in a Brooks Brothers suit. All the way back to Eisenhower, Washington has preached the humanitarian advantages of the free-market system to the Brazilians, Ike even telling them capitalism was, “socially conscious.” Then Washington supported the military dictatorship in Brazil that reigned from the Sixties to the Eighties.
On the western side of the continent, Colombia is the site of one of the worst human rights record in the world. It’s Washington-backed government and paramilitaries have spent decades assassinating political activists of every kind, from labor representatives to political candidates, all to ensure a stable investment climate for elite capital. The Honduran coup d’état that deposed a populist and installed a right-wing presidency was welcomed in Washington, the whole matter swept under the carpet of ‘stability’ by Hillary Clinton’s state department. Venezuela teeters on the ledge of the political abyss, its Bolivarian project assailed by illegal western sanctions from without, commodity hoarding by comprador elites and western-funded regime-change fanatics from within. Neoliberal extremists inside the beltway declare the inflationary chaos in Caracas as one more case study of the futility of socialism.
Foreign policy is also in a real sense a project of popular suppression. We tend to conceive foreign policy in military terms, but the handmaiden of force is fraud. The corollary of military might is economic manipulation, an especially useful way to drive populations to despair and evict their leaders, which can then be hastily replaced with western-educated technocrats happy to do the beltway’s bidding. This kind of financialized foreign policy rests on two tactics: sanctions and trade law.
Though the previous Democratic administration generated a proliferating raft of sanctions of what it considered to be ‘rogue’ nations, President Trump has added even more.
As The Empire Files’ Abby Martin expertly reports, the most foolish such move by the president was to unravel the JCPOA with Iran that Obama implemented, and to heap 143 new sanctions on Tehran. Trump has applied 80 new sanctions on the DPRK on top of 74 levied by Obama. Though Obama deserves credit for turning Syria into a cauldron of jihadist chaos, Trump has nearly doubled the number of sanctions on Damascus, adding 287 in just two years. He has levied 43 against Libya, a failed state still smoldering from its NATO dismemberment in 2011. And the president has added 105 sanctions against Russia and Ukraine, and 43 against the phantom hackers who allegedly penetrated the DNC. In South America, the administration has added nine times as many sanctions against Venezuela as did Obama in a desperate bid to finally topple the Bolivarian revolution. Tellingly, Rafael Maduro was just re-elected with 67 percent of the vote, despite low turnout. These numbers give the lie to the notion that Donald Trump is somehow an isolationist who wants to end imperial wars. Though recalling troops from Syria and Afghanistan is an excellent step, the piling on of sanctions against target nations is war by other means.
The fear of popular rule is also reflected in the fastidious efforts of elites to engineer international trade law that guarantee market access above and beyond the concerns of ordinary citizens. These legal structures are formed within international organizations like the WTO and implemented through programs like the TTIP and the TPP, which Obama labored so energetically to pass before his exodus from power, only to watch his dream program languish in the doldrums of partisan bickering. The point of the TPP was to open economic corridors across Asia that specifically excluded China. These opportunities would have been for American corporations, not American nor Asian citizens.
Under such onerous agreements, articulated as ‘foreign investment and trade,’ giant western multinationals in agriculture, communications, and financial services penetrate national markets, crush domestic companies or acquire them, and price gouge the majority. Often nationalized companies, like mineral utilities in Brazil or telecoms in Asia or oil companies in Iraq, are ‘privatized’ to make this possible. This means that the state, holding the national resources of the people, sell those resources to private western entities as below-market prices, effectively handing off the wealth of a country without the prior consent of the people, at prices that guarantee profitability for the western buyers.
The new owners then raise prices in keeping with their corporate charters, whereas state-owned companies are at least nominally bound to use resources on behalf of the population that owns them rather than for nameless shareholders in distant hemispheres. The central features of the TPP, for instance, stipulated that its rules would supersede any domestic laws that inhibited profits of the multinationals, even enabling a global supercourt staffed by corporate arbitration specialists. This legal sleight of hand effectively demolishes the concept of national sovereignty on behalf of corporate rule. This is precisely what Obama argued for, although he couched it in USA vs. China rhetoric, trying to coax a hibernating economic patriotism from a distracted consumer populace.
In order to manufacture the consent of the ruled, ‘free’ markets are sold alongside ‘free’ speech and ‘freedom’ of religion in a single package that sounds modern and progressive, but is deeply exploitative and regressive. That package essentially pairs capitalism with democracy. Again and again, when capitalism and democracy are paired, capital buys the democracy and dispossesses the demos of its wealth. As a consequence, wherever capitalism exists, one finds massive propaganda infrastructure designed to disguise the aims of capital. Without the latter, capitalism is exposed and overthrown.
It is interesting that the full-scale propaganda industry in America was launched to engineer consent for Washington’s entry into World War One. It is invariably easier to create convincing propaganda when it concerns events happening overseas rather than at home, for obvious reasons. Woodrow Wilson’s Creel Commission, staffed by Edward Bernays among others, whipped up mass anger at “Hun atrocities” in order to convince the isolationist populace that recusing itself from the war was a moral crime. The fake dossier of evidence of Hun savagery was supplied by none other than the British foreign ministry. Late in the second decade of the 21st century, Washington elites are again using British intelligence to supply disinformation (see the Steele dossier and lately the farcical Integrity Initiative). The hysteria of the Hun propaganda matches the hysteria of the Russiagate propaganda. It sometimes seems as though the one percent has displaced its fear of the mob onto a phantom foreign evil, the better to avoid openly revealing its antipathy for the lower classes.
In Sheldon Wolin’s version of totalitarianism the state is not embodied in the electrifying presence of a dictator, clad in polished jackboots, declaiming into the crackling air the ironclad mantras of the state. Rather Wolin’s version is faceless and anonymous, a system embodied in the ghostly apparition of elite capital. It is best represented not by the muscular energy of the strongman, but by the silver-tongued glibness of the corporate spokesperson. Rather than a concretized figure of authority, the new totalitarianism is fronted by a hologram, a transparency that soothes instead of animating. They congregate in shadowy and marginally reported conclaves, conferring across secret agendas at Bilderberg Group, G7 and Davos, the Trilateral Commission, and other silent summits beyond the din of urbanity.
In the end, we live beneath a form of capitalist absolutism, a corporate totalitarianism that renders the state anonymized and the individual atomized, a state of being from which there often seems no escape. Yet it is perhaps this impulse to abdication and resignation in the face of such vast, cyclopean structures that is the ultimate aim of the engines of consent. As we resign ourselves to our fate, we turn inward, focusing on individual needs, artificial and real, slowly severing the fraying threads of solidarity that once made us such a formidable threat to power and the very source of their disquiet.
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Parting shot—a word from the editors