Strauss, statism, secrecy, leaks, and public good

The New Republic is running an article by Mark Lilla titled “Reading Strauss in Beijing,” in which the author discusses the popularity of the writings of Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt among intellectuals in Beijing and throughout China. He also mentions Strauss’ influence on American neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle.

The article made me think about utilitarianism and the first paragraph of my previous entry: “The hundreds of US State Department cables released so far by WikiLeaks and its newspaper partners reveal a world in which power factions work for their own good rather than for the common good. Each state seeks to strengthen its hand against other states. None of them have any qualms about acting against the interests of their citizens or humanity as a whole.”

I’ll quote a few pieces of Lilla’s article that stood out (bold emphasis mine) and then his last three paragraphs:

…everyone I spoke with, across the political spectrum, agrees that China needs a stronger state, not a weaker one—a state that follows the rule of law, is less capricious, can control local corruption, and can perform and carry out long-term planning. Their disagreements all seem to be about how a strong state should exercise its power over the economy and how its newfound power should be exercised in international affairs.

[Chinese conservatives’] reading of history convinces them that China’s enduring challenges have always been to maintain territorial unity, keep social peace, and defend national interests against other states.

In agreement with Schmitt, they dismiss the “the autonomy of self-sufficient individuals” and see “the most defining characteristic” of humans as “the ability to distinguish friend and adversary.

Schmitt’s conclusion—that, given the naturally adversarial nature of politics, we would all be better off with a system of geographical spheres of influence dominated by a few great powers—sits particularly well with many of the young Chinese I met.

Schmitt’s political doctrine is brutal modern statism, which poses some problems in China. Though he was a jurist with a lot to say about constitutions and the rule of law, nothing in his thinking recognizes natural limits to state authority or even explains the aims of the state beyond keeping itself together and besting its adversaries. The Chinese tradition of political thought that begins with Confucius, though in a way statist, is altogether different: Its aim is to build a just social hierarchy where every person has a station and is bound to others by clear obligations, including the ruler, who is there to serve. Central to the functioning of such a state are the “gentlemen” (or “gentry” in some Confucius translations), men of character and conscience trained to serve the ruler by making him a better one—more rational and concerned with the people’s good.

Enter Leo Strauss, again. The most controversial aspect of Strauss’s thought in the United States over the past decade, given the role some of his devotees played in concocting the latest Iraq war, is what he had to say about the “gentleman.” Taking a cue from Aristotle, Strauss distinguished between philosophers, on the one hand, and practical men who embody civic virtue and are devoted to the public good, on the other: While knowing what constitutes the good society requires philosophy, he taught, bringing it about and maintaining it requires gentlemen. Aristocracies recognize this need, democracies don’t—which is why the education of gentlemen is difficult in democratic societies and may need to take place in secret. Much was made of this gentlemanly idea in Straussian circles after his death, and as young Straussians became part of the Republican foreign policy apparat, beginning in the Reagan administration, many began seeing themselves as members of an enlightened class guiding America through the “crisis of the West.” (This episode still awaits its satirist.) In this sense there was indeed a connection between Straussianism and the Iraq war.

But for the young Chinese I met, the distinction between sages and statesmen and the idea of an elite class educated to serve the public good make perfect sense because they are already rooted in the Chinese political tradition. What makes Strauss additionally appealing to them, apart from the grand tapestry of Western political theory he lays before them, is that he makes this ideal philosophically respectable without reference to Confucius or religion or Chinese history. He provides a bridge between their ancient tradition and our own. No one I met talked about a post-Communist China, for obvious reasons. But students did speak openly about the need for a new gentry class to direct China’s affairs, to strengthen the state by making it wiser and more just. None of them seemed particularly eager to join the Party, which they said co-opted even the most independent thinkers. For the moment, they seem content to study ancient languages, get their Ph.D.s, and take teaching jobs where they evidently hope to produce philosophers and gentlemen. They are not in a hurry. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

A nice companion to this article is one written by Jim Lobe for Alternet in May 2003 about the influence of Strauss on the neoconservatives who orchestrated the US invasion of Iraq. Again, I quote a some key pieces (my emphasis in bold):

[Neocons Abram Shulsky and Gary Schmitt (not to be confused with Carl
Schmitt)] argued that Strauss’s idea of hidden meaning, “alerts one to the possibility that political life may be closely linked to deception. Indeed, it suggests that deception is the norm in political life, and the hope, to say nothing of the expectation, of establishing a politics that can dispense with it is the exception.”

While professing deep respect for American democracy, Strauss believed that societies should be hierarchical – divided between an elite who should lead, and the masses who should follow. But unlike fellow elitists like Plato, he was less concerned with the moral character of these leaders. According to Shadia Drury, who teaches politics at the University of Calgary, Strauss believed that “those who are fit to rule are those who realize there is no morality and that there is only one natural right – the right of the superior to rule over the inferior.”

This dichotomy requires “perpetual deception” between the rulers and the ruled, according to Drury. Robert Locke, another Strauss analyst says, “The people are told what they need to know and no more.” While the elite few are capable of absorbing the absence of any moral truth, Strauss thought, the masses could not cope. If exposed to the absence of absolute truth, they would quickly fall into nihilism or anarchy, according to Drury, author of ‘Leo Strauss and the American Right’ (St. Martin’s 1999).

According to Drury, Strauss had a “huge contempt” for secular democracy. Nazism, he believed, was a nihilistic reaction to the irreligious and liberal nature of the Weimar Republic. … Strauss viewed religion as absolutely essential in order to impose moral law on the masses who otherwise would be out of control. … “Secular society in their view is the worst possible thing,” Drury says, because it leads to individualism, liberalism, and relativism, precisely those traits that may promote dissent that in turn could dangerously weaken society’s ability to cope with external threats.

Like Thomas Hobbes, Strauss believed that the inherently aggressive nature of human beings could only be restrained by a powerful nationalistic state. “Because mankind is intrinsically wicked, he has to be governed,” he once wrote. “Such governance can only be established, however, when men are united – and they can only be united against other people.”

Not surprisingly, Strauss’ attitude toward foreign policy was distinctly Machiavellian. “Strauss thinks that a political order can be stable only if it is united by an external threat,” Drury wrote in her book. “Following Machiavelli, he maintained that if no external threat exists then one has to be manufactured (emphases added).”

“Perpetual war, not perpetual peace, is what Straussians believe in,” says Drury.

Strauss’ neoconservative students see foreign policy as a means to fulfill a “national destiny” – as Irving Kristol defined it already in 1983 – that goes far beyond the narrow confines of a “myopic national security.”

As to what a Straussian world order might look like, the analogy was best captured by the philosopher himself in one of his – and student Allen Bloom’s – many allusions to Gulliver’s Travels. In Drury’s words, “When Lilliput was on fire, Gulliver urinated over the city, including the palace. In so doing, he saved all of Lilliput from catastrophe, but the Lilliputians were outraged and appalled by such a show of disrespect.”

The image encapsulates the neoconservative vision of the United States’ relationship with the rest of the world – as well as their relationship as a ruling elite with the masses. “They really have no use for liberalism and democracy, but they’re conquering the world in the name of liberalism and democracy,” Drury says.

That last statement makes for a nice segue to Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks. I have read and heard quite a few comments about the published US State Department cables along the lines of: “the US diplomatic corps comes off looking very professional, competent, reasonable, decent, etc.” My first impression was similar. But after reading more and more of the cables, and starting to read more carefully rather than just skimming for the juicy bits, I noticed something contrary: there is a near total absence of authentic regard for the public good. Plenty of cables have portions that give the impression that the individual author and the State Department as a whole are interested in promoting the public good. But each time I have read a cable that contained signs of an interest in promoting the public good, it always looked by the end of the cable like a handy way to obscure and achieve a higher goal: increasing leverage for the US state against other states.

And even if we set aside the ideal of equality and wanting the best for all people, there is an important distinction to be made between improving the lot of the US and improving the lot of the citizens and residents of the US. Strengthening the state almost always comes at the expense of the people over whom the state claims jurisdiction. Yes, the people get incidental benefits from a stronger state, e.g., people feel safer when the state is working to prevent terrorist attacks. But an individual resorts to terrorism against a state typically when that state has encroached on the individual or his or her kith and kin in some way and when the individual cannot find restitution and remedy through existing political channels. And the population that the state works to protect from terrorism probably gives up more than what they would lose in the event of periodically successful terrorist attacks. After all:

If in a province you see the poor oppressed, right and justice violated, do not be surprised. You will be told that officials are under the supervision of superiors, who are supervised in turn; you will hear talk of “the common good” and the “service of the king.” (Ecclesiastes 5:7–8)

But I digress. Returning to Jim Lobe’s article, it was meant as an indictment of American neoconservatives’ devotion to sinister elements of a Straussian mindset. But I think that the cables leaked, allegedly by Bradley Manning, and published so far show that this mindset is rampant throughout the US State Department. It might be disappointing but unsurprising to find evidence of the prevalence of this view in, for example, the military and intelligence branches. But I think that there is a widespread perception that the US State Department is a component of the American state, perhaps the last component, in which classical liberalism can still be found. Of course, it has always contained the likes of Richard Holbrooke and his ilk. But I am struck by the absence of classical liberalism in the cables I have read.

I don’t want to overestimate the importance of Strauss. I don’t imagine that America’s state apparatus is full of people who have studied and subscribe explicitly to the ideas of Strauss. But I do assert that his utilitarian notions of statism; rule by aristocracy; and the political virtues of secrecy, deception, and contrived conflict seem to be ingrained deeply in the institutions of power and the people who populate them — in the US and in the PRC, and probably just about everywhere else.

Constituted authority everywhere seems to be uniting toward an absolute refusal to countenance genuine dissent, as opposed to trivial quarrels within narrow bounds. Constituted authority has never been quite magnanimous about dissent. But there was an era of classical liberalism, which, as mentioned in Lobe’s article, is associated with individualism and dissent, which utilitarians assume “could dangerously weaken society’s ability to cope with external threats.”

The era of classical liberalism, as Lilla remarked, seems to be over. He attributes this in part to “political Islamism and Western responses to it.” The implication is that many people in the Western liberal democracies lack the courage of their professed liberal convictions. Are some things worth dying for? Some say yes, but it seems that far more say no.

In my previous post, I tried to frame that division in terms of utilitarian vs. ethical. I stand by that, but it is overly broad. A more specific framing is Strauss’ perception that the masses are unable to cope with classical liberalism’s presumed agreement to suspend belief in absolute moral truth when engaging in politics with people whose conception of moral truth may differ from our own. In other words, we identify friends, synchronize with them, crown a king, and then — with an undying “loyalty to power even when it is acting corruptly, lawlessly, and destructively” — set our collective face like flint against everyone else. Everything becomes a familiar struggle of us vs. them in which the masses wish “to be told what they need to know and no more,” and the ruling elite are pleased to oblige. But, as Emiliano Zapata said, “Ignorance and obscurantism have never produced anything other than flocks of slaves for tyranny.”

Thus, we have not only the ruling elite globally united against Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks, but a large swathe of the public as well. I quoted Nietzsche in my previous entry: “A state is called the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies also; and this lie creeps from its mouth: ‘I, the state, am the people.’ It is a lie!” Yes, it is a lie. But after the call comes the response: “We, the people, are the state.” And who dissents incurs the wrath of the state and the masses.

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American democracy

Institutions vs. people

The hundreds of US State Department cables released so far by WikiLeaks and its newspaper partners reveal a world in which power factions work for their own good rather than for the common good. Each state seeks to strengthen its hand against other states. None of them has any qualms about acting against the interests of their citizens or humanity as a whole.

Government is an association of men who do violence to the rest of us. — Leo Tolstoy

The state is an institution whose purpose is to violate rights in order to secure benefits to a privileged class. — Wendy McElroy

The modern state no longer has anything but rights; it does not recognize duties anymore. — Georges Bernanos

A state is called the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies also; and this lie creeps from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.” It is a lie! Creators were they who created peoples, and hung a faith and a love over them: thus they served life. Destroyers are they who lay snares for many, and call it the state: they hang a sword and a hundred cravings over them. — Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

So the US bargains with other states to strengthen its position vis-à-vis those states. It is willing to prop up tyrannies that it finds useful employ any means to defend and increase its power. This has always been apparent to the conscientious observer, but it is valuable to have it now in fuller view of the public.

But as Jacques Ellul said: “What seems to be one of the disasters of our time is that we all appear to agree that the nation-state is the norm. … Whether the state be Marxist or capitalist, it makes no difference. The dominant ideology is that of sovereignty.” So I’ll turn momentarily from repudiating the state and look beyond the content of the cables to speak in terms that may be more pertinent to those who prefer to focus on improving the state.

Ethical vs. utilitarian

I think that the greatest significance of the recent controversy surrounding Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks (BMWL) is how it seems to illuminate the respective weights given to the ethical and the utilitarian in an individual’s worldview.

People who give precedence to the ethical are confident in ideals such as truth, freedom, and justice. They appreciate the good that can come from the publication of this material. Most can also acknowledge that there are legitimate concerns that should be contemplated and debated. But whatever their views in that respect, they can see that prosecuting WikiLeaks or Julian Assange for espionage or the like is a dangerous and unacceptable precedent.

In contrast, those who subordinate ethics to utilitarianism seem to idolize power. They refuse to make value judgments about constituted authority and its actions. They seem compelled to defend that authority without considering the reasons for opposition or the implications of the means employed to quash opposition and the various possible outcomes of the conflict. This is the seed of authoritarianism, which Glenn Greenwald recently identified as “an instinctively servile loyalty to power even when it is acting corruptly, lawlessly, and destructively.” And the intensity of an attack on BMWL seems to indicate the degree to which the attacker is in thrall to power.

Brittle authoritarianism vs. authoritative strength

But those in the ethical camp need not discard utilitarianism, and it is the utilitarian perspective that leads to recognition that it is impossible to eliminate vulnerability. This leads to decisions about which vulnerabilities to accept based on ideals and priorities. And this maximizes strength without focusing on strength as the ultimate end.

In contrast, a strictly utilitarian perspective leads one at every moment to maximize short-term strength above all else. This self-inflicted myopia serves only to reduce strength in the long term.

I believe that an individual who does the hard work of living ethically is more likely to attain true happiness in the end than an unethical person is. Likewise, a nation whose people conduct politics ethically grows stronger than nations whose politics are rigidly utilitarian. Neither happiness for the individual nor strength for the nation can be attained through direct pursuit.

Democracy vs. plutocracy

And so I turn back to the US, where so many people believe that democracy “impresses its character on everything it touches” and that “nothing can touch democracy” (see my post of 10 December regarding Jacques Ellul’s Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes).

Despite mythology about the US being a place of freedom and democracy, the country has always been haunted by authoritarianism and plutocracy. I associate this with the failure to combine independence for the nation with manumission for individuals. The issue goes far beyond the struggles of African-Americans through slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights, etc. Successive generations in the US have faced iterations of the abominable choice between living on one’s knees or dying on one’s feet (¡viva Zapata!). Kent State and Watergate, McCarthyism, WWII concentration camps (in the US), Hooverville, the Espionage Act of 1917, and continual labor struggles (e.g., the Ludlow massacre, the Pullman strike, the Haymarket affair, and so on). Even Lincoln, virtual patron saint Americana, suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War.

But each time that authoritarianism ascended, people rebelled and turned it back before a point of no return was reached. Likewise, we must now reassert the ideals that Americans have long claimed their nation embodies and defends — starting with freedom and openness:

A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. — James Madison

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. — Thomas Jefferson

Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as public liberty, without freedom of speech. — Benjamin Franklin

Who are we now?

There are real threats to freedom and security. But the threat is not just from terrorists; the state itself is a threat when it operates in secrecy and without accountability. Bradley Manning and fellow leakers and a free press (which includes WikiLeaks) are not threats to freedom or security.

We must oppose injustice without perpetrating injustice. This means that sometimes determined enemies will succeed in their attacks. We need to have the courage of our convictions and a tolerance for opposition. Adhering to our convictions must take precedence over prevailing against evil. And contravening our convictions equates to surrendering to evil and becoming complicit with it in the end.

Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks, and Propaganda

I have been wanting for a while to write something about the whole uproar surrounding WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning (presumably the chief hero in this whole thing whose natural allies seem to have temporarily forgotten about him because of the drama and visibility of Julian Assange’s current situation). But every time I start focusing on a particular aspect, I find that it has already been covered better than I can do by someone else, often Glenn Greenwald in particular. Some other pieces that I have liked are here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Instead of echoing what other people have already articulated, I want pull back and look at the current events in light of Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, which I mentioned in a post on 23 November. The following is a mix of paraphrases and direct quotes from section 4, “Propaganda and Democracy,” of chapter 5, “The Socio-Political Effects.” I intend to tie some of the ideas below to the Bradley-Manning-WikiLeaks (BMWL) brouhaha later, perhaps next week.

Summary

In Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, Jacques Ellul asserts that raw facts are subordinate to propaganda. “Facts do not assume reality in the people’s eyes unless they are established by propaganda. … For modern man, propaganda is really creating truth.”

He further asserts that propaganda is totalitarian by its nature, not because it has been used to the limit by totalitarian states, but because “the ultimate aim of all propaganda” is to provoke “action without prior thought.” This implies that propaganda is immanently anti-democratic since democracy depends on individuals being informed and able to participate in debate and deliberation to judge the quality of decisions being made by elected government officials and the agents of the state that are, in theory, accountable to the elected government.

Ellul notes that many people, especially journalists and commentators, in democracies tend to believe that “nothing can touch democracy: on the contrary, [democracy] impresses its character on everything it touches.” And even many people who study propaganda carefully harbor a belief in the possibility of setting up “a propaganda system that expresses the democratic character and does not alter the working of democracy.”

Although a democracy may not allow the means of propaganda to be formally monopolized, the “trend everywhere is in the direction of a very few, very powerful companies controlling all the propaganda media. … Assuming that information is an indispensable element of democracy, it is necessary that the information promulgated by the State be credible. Without credibility, it will fail. … The problem then is whether the State will support a private competitor who controls media equal or superior to its own but makes different propaganda. It may even be entirely legitimate for the State to suppress or annex such a competitor.”

“Some will say: ‘Freedom of expression is democracy; to prevent propaganda is to violate democracy.’ Certainly, but it must be remembered that the freedom of expression of one or two powerful companies that do not express the thoughts of the individual or small groups, but of capitalists interests or an entire public, does not exactly correspond to what was called freedom of expression a century ago.”

Ellul proceeds to quote Rivero, who says:

“In the nineteenth century, the problem of opinion formation through the expression of thought was essentially a problem of contacts between the State and the individual, and a problem of acquisition of a freedom. But today, thanks to the mass media, the individual finds himself outside the battle … the debate is between the State and powerful groups. … Freedom to express ideas is no longer at stake in this debate. … What we have is mastery and domination by the State or by some powerful groups over the whole of the technical media of opinion formation … the individual has no access to them … he is no longer a participant in this battle for the free expression of ideas: he is the stake. What matters for him is which voice he will be permitted to hear and which words will have the power to obsess him.”

And here Ellul points out: “It is in the light of this perfect analysis that one must ask oneself what freedom of expression still means in a democracy.”

“…what characterizes democracy is that it permits the expression of different propagandas. This is true. But it is impossible to permit the expression of all opinion. Immoral and aberrant opinions are justifiably subject to censorship. Purely personal opinions and, even more, certain political tendencies are necessarily excluded. “No freedom for the enemies of freedom” is the watchword then. Thus the democracies create for themselves a problem of limitation and degree.”

“In time of war, everybody agrees that news must be limited and controlled, and that all propaganda not in the national interest must be prohibited. From that fact grows a unified propaganda. The problem that now arises is” that war “is no longer an exceptional state” but is “permanent and endemic.” And Ellul asserts that propaganda itself is responsible for this perpetual war footing.

He goes on to note that democratic propaganda “is an instrument not of passion but of reason. … The tradition of respecting the individual has not yet been eliminated, and this leads to all sorts of consequences. First, it limits propaganda. The democratic State uses propaganda only if driven by circumstances—for example, traditionally, after wars. But whereas private and domestic propaganda is persistent in its effects, governmental and external propaganda evaporate easily. Besides, such propaganda is not total, does not seek to envelop all of human life, to control every form of behavior, to attach itself ultimately to one’s person. A third trait of democratic propaganda is that it looks at both sides of the coin. The democratic attitude is frequently close to that of a university: there is not absolute truth, and it is acknowledged that the opponent has some good faith, some justice, some reason on his side. It is a question of nuances. There is no strict rule—except in time of war—about Good on one side and Bad on the other.”

Ellul refers to and endorses a distinction made by Harold D. Lasswell between the propagandas of totalitarian regimes and democratic regimes. The former customarily use propaganda to produce effects in the masses that the ruling elite do not participate in. Conversely, the propaganda of the latter usually springs from what those in power really feel and which they want the masses to participate in — “It is a communal action.”

At this point, Ellul judges that everything said above about democratic propaganda “adds up to ineffectual propaganda. … Precisely to the extent that the propagandist retains his respect for the individual, he denies himself the very penetration that is the ultimate aim of all propaganda: that of provoking action without prior thought. By respecting nuances, he neglects the major law of propaganda: every assertion must be trenchant and total. To the extent that he remains partial, he fails to use the mystique. But that mystique is indispensable for well-made propaganda.”

Furthermore, “propaganda always creates a schism between the government and the mass. … Ultimately, even if one tries to maintain confidence and communion between the government and the governed, all propaganda ends up as a means by which the prevailing powers manipulate the masses.”

The conclusion is that employing the techniques of propaganda leads to abandoning “the traits that are characteristic of democracy but paralyzing for propaganda: the combination of effective propaganda and respect for the individual seems impossible.”

As an addendum, “Jacques Driencourt has demonstrated that propaganda is totalitarian it its essence, not because it is the handmaiden of the totalitarian State, but because it has a tendency to absorb everything. … It means that when one takes that route, one cannot stop halfway: one must use all instruments and all methods that make propaganda effective. One must expect … that the democracies will abandon their precautions and their nuances and throw themselves wholeheartedly into effective propaganda action. But such action will no longer have a special democratic character.”

Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, translation by Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner, Vintage Books Edition, 1973 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1968) 235–242.

Plutocracy ctd.

At Democracy in America, Will Wilkinson makes some good points in arguing that America is not a plutocracy. I am sympathetic to his assertion that the specific nature of the highly skewed distribution of wealth in America “actually reflects the fact that American institutions are unusually conducive to innovation and the creation (as opposed to the expropriation) of immense wealth.” The wealthiest 1% in the US, taken as a class, differs in character from the more feudal-type ruling class in societies such as those in Latin America that he focuses on. But I think that he is too quick to dismiss the significance and implications of the huge gaps in wealth distribution.
He claims that, “America is a relatively healthy and functional democracy.” It’s difficult to reject this entirely because the word relatively allows a lot of wiggle room. The question arises: relative to what? Other foundering democracies? The example of Meg Whitman losing her bid for the governorship of California may show that the health of America’s democratic system could be worse, but it doesn’t persuade me that America’s democracy is healthy.
Wilkinson then says that the “historically most typical cause” of income inequality “is the concentration of political power in the hands of a predatory elite.” He goes on to list five primary reasons for income inequality in America that don’t involve political predation. I accept that the five reasons he lists account for some of the income inequality, perhaps even a considerable share.
But I think that manipulation of the political process plays a large role as well. I mentioned in my previous post a recent Bloomberg article about lobbying by health insurers. It seems to me that the health care industry in the US reaps huge profits partly through the kind of oligarchic expropriation of wealth that Wilkinson seems to deny is a problem in the US.
Without going through a laundry list of other examples, I think it’s fair to say that many industries and special interest groups use their wealth to game the political process to their advantage in myriad ways that amount to wealth expropriation from those who don’t have access to copious surplus wealth. And I consider the enormous expenditures on the surveillance–security state to be a particularly distasteful form of wealth expropriation, especially when viewed against the backdrop of deteriorating infrastructure, a deteriorating social safety net, and the mediocre-to-poor quality of education available to most of the people who are not wealthy.

Plutocracy

Plutocracy: government by the wealthy; the rule or dominion of wealth or of the rich

Oligarchy: government by the few; a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes; also: a group exercising such control

Whatever else may be true of civil governments, they are primarily systems of depredation, capture, piracy, thuggery, gangsterism, racketeering, etc. But the degree to which they fleece the societies they lord over varies widely. Some are never far from provoking the population to revolt. Others are restrained enough to be tolerated by all but a small part of the population — and even lauded by a large part — for a long time.

But greed eventually leads every regime to provoke open revolt. The question of whether a revolt is bloody or bloodless depends mostly on the government. Democracy’s chief, perhaps lone, credit is that it gives wider berth than any other form of government to the possibility of bloodless, rather than bloody, revolution.

Bill Moyers spoke, as part of the Howard Zinn Lecture Series, on 29 October 2010 at Boston University about the slide in the US back toward the plutocracy of the Gilded Age. The universal tendency of corporate and political power to merge gets attention periodically in public discourse. Rather than try to construct my own overview of the problem, I leave you to read or watch Moyers’ speech.

One of the specifics that Moyers discusses is efforts by the likes of the Koch brothers and Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence, to defeat health care reform. Dovetailing nicely with this is a Bloomberg article about the US Chamber of Commerce’s role in delivering the US into plutocracy. Of course, that’s not what the Bloomberg piece is supposed to be about. It’s about the money ($86.2 million) that health insurers gave AmCham to oppose health care reform.

It’s a nice piece of journalism that illustrates the lengths to which the health insurers went to oppose health care reform and the lengths to which they went to keep the extent of their opposition hidden. It also illustrates AmCham’s role as a money-launderer for corporations that want to influence the political process anonymously.

In the words of Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and current head of the political activity practice at a law firm in Washington, DC, “They [the health insurers] clearly thought the Chamber would be a more credible source of information and advertising on health-care reform, and it would appear less self-serving if a broader business group made arguments against it than if the insurers did it.”

Bloomberg focuses on the fact that the insurers were negotiating with legislators in drafting what became the Affordable Care Act with a professed interest in seeing reform done well while simultaneously and anonymously attacking the reform effort wholesale. They were able to exert influence from the outside without losing the credibility needed to influence the process from the inside.

This gets to the issue of disclosure of and restrictions on lobbying methods and the funding of electioneering activities and the rest of the “soft” corruption that tips a democracy into a plutocracy. Moyers closes his speech by exhorting us to organize to pass legislation that would, among other things, nullify the effect of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. I’m all for that, and I say let’s go further and overturn the legal fiction — established by cases such as San Mateo County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1882), Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886), and Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad Co. v. Beckwith (1889) — that property (e.g., a corporation) is a person (which is the inverse of the equally absurd and now discarded legal fiction that a person is property).

However, I don’t believe that such efforts, even if successful, will accomplish a lot. The Republican Party and the Democratic Party both represent the wealthy. The political system is run for the benefit of the top 10% of income earners, and the trick of conservative consolidation is to use some of the resources of this elite 10% to make certain that the next 40% of income earners fear the bottom 50% more than they resent the top 10%. Rhetoric aside, the Democratic Party is conservative in the literal sense that they wish to maintain the bias in favor of the wealthy that is inherent to the current political economy.

There have been periods when the political economy was healthier than it is now, and this fact makes it seem reasonable to expect that significant improvements can be made now, that there is hope for improvement. After all, democracy is a strictly utilitarian system. It is not itself a reasonable object of faith or hope, but it seems to allow room for some kind of faith or hope for progress.

However, I think this is a deception. Societies under democratic systems of government have had ups and downs in the past, but I think there is no longer any good reason to expect or even hope for significant periods of upward momentum toward justice, peace, prosperity, or whatever else may seem like a worthy goal.

The reason has to do with the nature of the technological society, a concept described by Jacques Ellul in a book of that name. I recently read another book by Ellul that addresses propaganda as a particular class of technique in the nexus of techniques composing the technological society: Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (1965). I want to quote a passage (translated by Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner) from section 3, “Propaganda and Grouping,” of chapter 5, “The Socio-Political Effects”:

“One can say that propaganda almost inevitably leads to a two-party system. Not only would it be very difficult for several parties to be rich enough to support such expensive campaigns of propaganda, but also propaganda tends to schematize public opinion. Where there is propaganda, we find fewer and fewer nuances and refinements of detail or doctrine. Rather, opinions are more incisive; there is only black and white, yes and no. Such a state of public opinion leads directly to a two-party system and the disappearance of a multi-party system.

“The effects of propaganda can also be clearly seen in view of what Duverger calls the party with the majority mandate and the party without that mandate The party with the majority mandate, which ordinarily should command an absolute majority in parliament, is normally the one that has been created by propaganda. Propaganda’s principal trumps then slip out of the hands of the other parties. All the latter can do then is to make demagogic propaganda, i.e., a false propaganda that is purely artificial, considering what we have said about the relationship between propaganda and reality. (In other words, the party out of power must pick an artificial issue.)

“In that case we find ourselves faced with two completely contradictory propagandas. On one side is a propaganda powerful in media and techniques, but limited in its ends and modes of expression, a propaganda strictly integrated into a given social group, conformist and statist. On the other is a propaganda weak in regard to media and techniques, but excessive in its ends and expressions, a propaganda aimed against the existing order, against the State, against prevailing group standards.

“But one must never forget that the party with the majority mandate, which adjusts its propaganda to that mandate and even uses the mandate as a propaganda aim, is nevertheless also the creation of propaganda, which hands it that mandate in a given setting and for a long period of time.

“Finally, a last word on the financial problems and their implications: it is improbable that the contributions alone would enable a party to pay for the increasingly expensive propaganda media. The parties are therefore forced to look for aid either to capitalists — and thus indenture themselves to a financial oligarchy — or to a government (national or foreign). In the second case, the State comes close to appropriating the instruments. The State then lends them to those who ask for them, which is very democratic, and thus permits secondary parties to live; but this leads to an unstable situation, as I said earlier, and the State is then increasingly forced to exercise censorship over what is being said by means of these instruments. This censorship will be increasingly rigorous as the State itself is forced to make more propaganda.

“This leads us to examine the hypothesis of a State that ceases to be neutral in the ideological domain and assumes a doctrine or ideology of its own. At that moment, propaganda by the State is imposed on all parties. To be sure, we are still dealing with propaganda. We have seen in past decades with regard to all “state religions” that power must first be used to shape public opinion, without which they could not operate. Thus, at the beginnings of the Nazi State, or of popular democracies, a certain competition continued between the propaganda of the State and that of the parties out of power. But in such competition the State necessarily emerges victorious; it increasingly denies the use of the mass media of communication to the opposition parties; it works on public opinion until the moment arrives when it can simply suppress opposition parties without fear. But the State can work on public opinion only through the intermediary of a party. This is another effect of propaganda. One could conceive of a State that would suppress all parties and live by itself: that was the classic pattern of dictatorship. However, that is no longer possible.

“Once public opinion has been aroused and altered to political problems, it must be taken into consideration. The propaganda mechanism of the State cannot function as an administrative unit; it cannot have reality or efficiency except through the media of the State party. It is impossible to imagine that a modern State could command acceptance without working through a party establishing contact between those who govern and public opinion. The party’s fundamental role is to make propaganda for the government, i.e., the propaganda that the government wishes to e made. In one sense, incidentally, we find here the image of a party in its purest state, for ultimately every party is a propaganda machine. But this is much more hidden in other systems in which there still can be nuances and discussions; in dictatorships, the party no longer serves any ideological or political function, no longer expresses social interests, and so on. It is an organ designed to tame and train public opinion, and exists solely because of the State’s need. As soon as that need diminishes, the role and prestige of the party also diminish This happened in Nazi Germany in 1938 (after the concentration of all powers in the Fuhrer’s hands), and in the Soviet Union after the purges of 1936. But as soon as propaganda again becomes important the party resumes its role.

“Propaganda very clearly gives direction to the life of political parties imposes certain forms and rules on them sends them down certain paths, and ends up by deciding their life or death until the regime expands to the point at which propaganda and party are totally fused.”

My view is that there is no longer a possibility of reforming the state into a more tolerable form because, although it may have taken forms in the past that were tolerable, it has now been transformed by the agglomeration of techniques, especially propaganda, to the point where meaningful reform is no longer possible. The only option I see is to withdraw all moral support from the state and minimize interactions with it. It cannot be made to serve the interests of humanity and the rest of creation.