Friday, December 16, 2011

National Defence Authorization Act: a Marxist view

Solomon Lamb has an excellent Marxist analysis of the act.  If you aren't following his blog, you should be.

The (Resistible) Rise of American Authoritarianism

In his classic work, "The State in Capitalist Society", Ralph Miliband predicted the inevitable decline of "liberal democracy" in the advanced capitalist nations as this superstructural framework became incompatible with the demands imposed upon it by an economic base wracked by crisis and the social unrest provoked by this crisis. As Miliband put it:

"Indeed, the largest of all questions about Western-type regimes is how long their 'bourgeois-democratic' framework is likely to remain compatible with the needs and purposes of advanced capitalism; whether its economic, social and political contradictions are of such a kind as to render unworkable the political order which it has, in general, hithero been able to accommodate.

"This was the question that was asked, with anxious insistence, about capitalist regimes in the late twenties and thirties, when Fascism and Nazism appeared to many people on the Left, and not only on the Left, to foreshadow the direction in which 'liberal capitalism' […] was likely to travel. That question was, in subsequent decades, buried deep beneath the celebration of Western democracy, the free world, the welfare state, the affluent society, the end of ideology and pluralistic equilibrium.

"[…] [T]hat old question has again come to the surface. […] The point is not that 'bourgeois democracy' is imminently likely to move towards old-style Fascism. It is rather that advanced capitalist societies are subject to strains […] and that their inability to resolve these strains makes their evolution towards more or less pronounced forms of conservative authoritarianism more rather than less likely. […] The gradual transition of capitalism into socialism may be a myth: but the gradual transition of 'bourgeois democracy' into more or less pronounced forms of authoritarianism is not." [1]

Writing in 1970, many dismissed Miliband's predictions as overwrought and exaggerated, but forty years later who can seriously doubt their validity?

Today, U.S. President Barack Obama will be signing into law the National Defence Authorization Act.  This is an annually ratified act which approves the budget and expenditures for the U.S. Defence Department. This year, however, the act includes a clause which allows the indefinite detention of any U.S. citizens "suspected of belligerent acts" and the reintroduction of controversial "enhanced interrogation techniques". Those held under the new legislation will not be entitled to an attorney and will only be able to appeal against their detention in closed judicial hearings. The act was passed by both the House of Congress and the Senate with large majorities and is now set to receive the seal of approval from the Executive Branch. Unsurprisingly, the American Civil Liberties Union has described the new legislation as "an historic threat to American citizens". [2]

Prior to the vote in the Senate there had been some suggestion that President Obama might be veto the bill because he was said to be "unhappy" with some of its language. The reality of the President's concerned transpired to be more terrifying than reassuring, however, when it was revealed that the White House's concern was that the bill did not given the Execute Branch enough powers over U.S. citizens. According to Democratic Senator and Chair of the Senate Committee on the Armed Forces, Carl Levin: "the administration asked us to remove the language which says that US citizens and lawful residents would not be subject to this section [which allows indefinite detention and the suspension of habeus corpus]". Such Presidential pressure should send a clear signal to those who object that the existence of a law is not an indication of an administration's willingness to apply it – the Obama administration is chomping at the bit to get its hands on these new powers. [3]

The rhetoric from both Democrats and Republicans surrounding this new legislation has been extremely alarmist. Speaking on the floor of the Senate prior to the vote on the bill, the Republican Senator from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham, described America as a "battlefield" and said that: "If you're an American citizen and you want to help […] destroy your own country, here is what's coming your way." From the Democrats, the afore-mentioned Senator Car Levin weighed in saying: "We recognize the authority of this president and every other president to hold an enemy combatant indefinitely, whether they are captured home or abroad, because that only makes sense." The idea of describing American citizens as "enemy combatants" apparently did not disturb the other Senators present, as the bill passed with 83 votes in favour and just 13 opposed.

So what kind of threats is America now faced with that requires such drastic measures? Many in both the Senate and the House of Congress made the obligatory references to "Islamic extremism" and "Al-Qaeda", but this does not reflect reality. Despite attempts to hype up the recent "Iranian terror plot" or the attempted car bombing in New York last year, the reality is that there has not been a single significant terrorist attack on American soil in ten years. Furthermore, existing legislation was more than capable of dealing with those who actively sought to engage in violent terrorism. The language of the legislation, with its talk of "belligerence", clearly suggests an existential threat which will require the ability to control large sections of the domestic population. Fundamentalist Islam, whatever may be said about it, is most certainly not a popular ideology amongst the American people.

Indeed, at a time when Islamic extremism is on the (relative) decline both in terms of its actions and its popularity, should we not be looking for a more plausible reason for this new legislation? The only plausible explanation arises from placing it in the context of the recent popular social unrest sparked by the Occupy Wall Street movement, which spread across American cities with impressive speed and which continues to impact on the American popular imagination. Whatever its faults, and they are numerous, the Occupy Movement certainly alarmed the American establishment who responded to it with brutal crackdowns and forced evictions.

Now, the fear of the American capitalist class is clearly that the Occupy protestors will learn the lessons that should have been beaten into them by police billyclubs in places like Oakland: the system isn't going to change just because you ask it to. There is the real possibility that these protestors will move away from their earlier utopianism (and non-violence) and towards meaningful revolutionary action, and American establishment hopes to nip this threat in the bud with swift, draconian action.

Organized and ideologically-coherent opponents of the American state, in particular Marxist-Leninists, have long been a target of intensive repression. Late last year, the FBI and the U.S. State Department embarked on a broad crackdown against "anti-war" activists and those involved in "international solidarity" campaigns for states currently being targeted by Western imperialism. Carlos Montes, the co-founder of the legendary Mexican-American "Brown Beret" working class organization, was threatened with up to eighteen years in prison on dubious firearm charges, while numerous other activists were arrested  and sent before a grand jury. Particularly targeted were members of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, an American Marxist-Leninist group which has been extremely vocal in its denunciations of U.S. imperialism. [4]

Actions such as those described above were condemned by 42 Socialist and Communist Parties, who gathered at the International Communist Summit in May of this year, as part of a "new McCarthyism".  Such terminology may have sounded alarmist at the time, but who can fail to draw comparisons between the language of the McCarthy era and that which was heard on the floor of the U.S. Senate earlier this week. Once again we hear American citizens described as "enemies" and once again we see the elected representatives of these citizens swinging into action against them. The talk these days may not be of "reds under the bed" but we can be sure that it's only a matter of time before it is. [5]

From all this, those who are genuinely interested in building a better world should draw a crucial lesson: this is a real-life struggle. If you fight against the dominant power structure it will fight back. In times of real revolutionary struggle, the capitalist state throws off its tolerant liberal mask and reveals its true, terrifying face. If you really want to engage in revolutionary struggle you have to get serious and you have to get organized or else you will be crushed and swept aside.

If our American friends can get serious and get organized, however, there is every reason to maintain hope. As Miliband noted: "[N]o more than reform does repression achieve its purpose. On the contrary, the more the state seeks to repress, the greater is the opposition it is likely to engender." [1] But the transformation of this opposition into a viable force for the revolutionary transformation of society must be the work of dedicated revolutionaries armed with the only real science of revolutionary change: Marxism-Leninism. It is time for these revolutionaries to come to the fore and put paid to the utopian meanderings of movements like Occupy Wall Street, whose pleas for decency from the capitalist state are as pathetic as the pleas for decency delivered to the Tsar by the Russian people in 1905.

With this in mind, I end with the words of Max Weber on the eve of the rise of fascism in Germany:

"Not summer's bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness […] When this night shall have slowly receded, who of those for whom spring apparently has bloomed so luxuriously will be alive? And what will have come of all of you by then? Will you be bitter and banausic? Will you simply and dully accept world and occupation? Or will the third and by no means least frequent possibility be your lot: mystic flight from reality for those who are gifted for it, or –as is both frequent and unpleasant – for those who belabour themselves to follow this fashion? In every one of such cases, I shall draw the conclusion that they have not measured up to their own doings.

"[…]Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth – that man would not have attained the possible unless time and time again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right now, or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today. Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say 'In spite of all!' has the calling for politics." [6]

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[1] Ralph Miliband, "The State in Capitalist Society" (Merlin Press, 1969/2009)

[2] (Russia Today, "Indefinite detention bill passes in the Senate")

[3] (Russia Today, "Obama insists on indefinite detention of Americans")

[4] (Freedom Road Socialist Organization, "One year after FBI raids on anti-war, international solidarity activists…")

[5] (Freedom Road Socialist Organization, "Resolution in solidarity with the Freedom Road Socialist Organization against new McCarthyism")

[6] Max Weber, "Politics as a Vocation" ("From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology", Routledge, 1991)


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