The Red Queen of Alice in Wonderland – “Sentence first – verdict afterwards” – is now in charge.
As many people have heard by now, a whistleblower sent to NBC News a couple of days ago a confidential DOJ memo that provides justifications for the government to use drones to assassinate Americans. This is extrajudicial action carried out by the White House alone. If individuals were to do it it would be called vigilantism and/or murder. I want to put this all into a larger context to illuminate what has been afoot. But before doing that, a hypothetical scenario:
If it was within Iran’s capacity to deploy drones over the U.S., the way the U.S. does over Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, etc., and Iran’s Prime Minister and his closest advisor for drones, Mohammed J. Brennan, met every Tuesday in Tehran to decide which Americans were going to be assassinated, the way President Obama and his own John Brennan do, and Iran was murdering thousands of Americans, including over 176 American children, what do you suppose the response in the U.S. might be? Do you suppose that we would be grateful for Iran’s behavior? Would there be American pundits opining that Iran has a right to self-defense, and after all, the U.S. has been carrying out acts of terror, open and clandestine, against Iran for years? To even ask these questions is to, of course, answer them…
According to what you learn in middle school or high school, the government only acts to kill people through a process in which checks and balances are operating and actions are scrutinized by supervisory bodies according to the rule of law, and only when all else fails, in order to ensure that some tyrant isn’t exercising dictatorial powers over the people.
But that’s just what you are told in school and what Presidents say in major speeches.
President Obama’s use of drones actually predates his presidency. He proposed drones’ use against Pakistan in 2007 while running for the White House, a proposal that then president Bush initially ridiculed, “He’s going to attack Pakistan!” After getting over the shock of having someone standing further to his right, being as how he was a president who never saw a war that he didn’t want to start or a phone and computer that he didn’t want tapped, Bush subsequently secretly took Obama’s advice and began using covert ops and drones in Pakistan.
Why has the U.S. government – under Republican and Democratic administrations – been declaring for itself the right to spy on literally everyone, pre-emptively arrest peaceful demonstrators and designating all legal protest as “low-level terrorism,” using torture (euphemistically entitled “enhanced interrogation techniques”) openly, assassinating people by drones (including over a 176 children who are now, according to a military spokesman, legitimate targets for drones and also people who have publicly taken stands against al-Qaeda and the Taliban), waging multiple undeclared pre-emptive wars without even getting a new Congressional rubber stamp of approval, passing and using the USA Patriot Act and the NDAA, with the latter allowing the military to preventively and indefinitely detain you, and if you’re an American citizen, having your citizenship immediately revoked, merely on the basis of an accusation?
The Red Queen of Alice in Wonderland – “Sentence first – verdict afterwards” – is now in charge.
Why, in short, are previously supposedly sacrosanct principles that lie at the heart of American and western jurisprudence –the rule of law – now being suspended?
Beneath the usual noise of Republicans and Democrats pointing the finger at each other and the related debates between people who argue on behalf of one party versus the other, is a larger shift that both parties are part of. You cannot tell who is doing what based on the conventional understanding that the Republicans are more rightwing, more contemptuous of civil liberties, and more belligerent than the Democrats. Obama’s policies both foreign and domestic, leaving aside his cleverly disguised rhetoric, are in key respects, to the right of Bush’s. The only way to understand what is going on is to probe beneath surface appearances and the self-serving rhetoric of the two parties and look at what the government’s trajectory has been over the last several decades.
It is on this level that these deeply disturbing moves need to be and can be understood. The use of assassinations, ubiquitous surveillance, suspension of due process, and torture, are all necessary corollaries to the rise of neoliberal policies. Neoliberalism is the doctrine and set of policies that aim to demolish the welfare state (aka the New Deal in the U.S.) on behalf of giving unfettered freedom to capital’s unquenchable thirst for profit – allowing so-called market forces to dictate all things personal and societal.
Because capital benefits from rendering workers’ status more and more precarious – it allows them to extract more work from people at lower cost to capital – the positive incentives for people to go along with authority and the way things are are disappearing. In order to maintain social order and the continued operations of capital’s dominance, negative incentives – fear, coercion, and terror – must therefore take its place increasingly. The turning point in the world to abandoning the welfare state and adopting the neoliberal state dates back the first September 11: September 11, 1973 with the fascist coup of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, backed by the CIA, over the socialist Chilean president Dr. Salvador Allende.
After the coup, Pinochet began to implement neoliberal policies, under the supervision and guidance of University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman. Subsequently, neoliberal policies were adopted in the U.S. under Ronald Reagan and in England under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Every U.S. president since Reagan has carried this program of neoliberalism further, with each of them, regardless of their party, going further down that road.
Neoliberal policies are also evident in public order policies, a term that very few people have ever heard but that actually accurately describes what has happened to the guiding principles of governance since the end of the Cold War. Public order policies treat government’s role as one of anticipating and forestalling the unlikely, rather than punishing people on the basis of actual evidence and actual actions. Under POP, you can be detained, punished, or even killed by authorities because of what authorities think that you might do, rather than what you have done. The zenith of POP was expressed by Dick Cheney when he declared his famous 1% doctrine: If there’s a 1% chance that something can happen then we have to treat it as a certainty.
[Public order policies] may be defined as a shift in emphasis by governments away from dealing with actual and discrete threats to public safety towards preparing for a putatively more generalized and ubiquitous foe. The very possibility of something untoward happening began to be treated as probable. These policies are also sometimes referred to as “risk assessments.” Precluding the unlikely has increasingly become a guiding principle in statecraft and private enterprises.
Magnus Hornqvist observed in the “Birth of Public Order Policy” in 2004:
“Over the last twenty years, the nature of the rule of law and the basis on which nation states employ force has been changing fundamentally. The distinction between what is criminal, to be dealt with by the legal and justice system, and what creates a ‘perception of insecurity’– formerly to be dealt with by social policy – is being eroded at both the macro (‘war on terror’) and micro (‘public order’) levels. This paves the way for the unbridled use of state force, in the first instance, and the criminalisation of behaviours that are not necessarily illegal, in the second. Fear becomes a controlling mechanism for the maintenance of the social order and any element of non-conformity is construed as a threat. “[ii]
The ratcheting up of social control measures in alleged response to terrorism occurred before 9/11 and the various incidents that are commonly cited as lead-up terrorist incidents to 9/11 (e.g., the February 26, 1993, bombing of the World Trade Center; the October 12, 2000, attack on the USS Cole in Yemen; the 2001 suicide bombing murder of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud). The discourse of fear, the criminalization of previously noncriminal behaviors (including constitutionally protected free speech and protest), the massive covert government and private corporate surveillance of lawful activities and persons, and the increasing incarceration rate, all began in earnest before 9/11 and the “War on Terror.” (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, p. 144 -146)
What is the material background to this?
[A]s the state seems to shrink because of privatization and outsourcing, it has been simultaneously expanding its social control activities and powers. This is evident in two respects. First, coercion and surveillance are being shared by the state with private entities—with the state’s blessings and encouragement. The state is, in a sense, deputizing segments of the society to act as arms of the state. Second, the state is magnifying its own coercive and surveillance apparatus and declaring itself less subject to “dilution” by civil liberties, the rule of law, or competition from civil society. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, p. 176)
If you want to understand why these terrible things are going on, then you need to understand what neoliberalism is and what public order policies are. And then you need to act to expose this for what it is, uncover the fact that al-Qaeda is but a symptom rather than the cause, and open other people’s eyes to the nightmare that is unfolding so that we can act collectively, initially with small numbers of people who trigger thousands and eventually millions.
Public order policies that track and observe everyone as a potential suspect foster greater and greater levels of pure noise. The noise is deafening because the potential terrorists are everywhere, and by their very nature and magnitude they are impossible to identify and track. Carrying out “national security” in this manner is like going out into a growing hurricane and trying to determine which flying objects are going to hit you and when. If what you are doing is fostering the hurricane in the first place, as the Bush White House did in ignoring global warming and weakening New Orleans in the face of a storm, then you better stop doing those things or you are inviting disaster.
The insistence that everyone is a potential problem and that more information about everything is better means that actual terrorist plots are being covered up by avalanches of useless and irrelevant information. It is like taking a gourmet meal prepared by a four-star restaurant and mixing it with tons and tons of garbage. Now, your challenge is to find the haute cuisine in that pile of stench.
The overriding problem here, however, is not the plethora of unusable and illegitimately obtained information about all of us, as insuperable as that problem is. Even if that problem did not exist, there would still be a larger problem: intelligence failures do not discredit the existing policies of ubiquitous surveillance, war, occupations, indefinite detentions, torture, assassinations, and drone attacks. Failures of intelligence promote and justify the existing policies that are supposed to prevent terrorism. The longer the US goes without another successful or abortive terrorist incident, the harder it becomes to justify the security state’s measures. Thus, the security state has a stake in having at least some anti-state terrorist incidents occur. This is the security state’s dirty little secret.
When the dominant paradigm is the “War on Terror” and when the gains to be had from continuing this war are as extraordinary as they are—booty in the trillions of dollars overall and the reins of political power of an empire—then any strategically placed individual or group could take advantage of this condition by suppressing information about an upcoming terrorist incident, by allowing an incident to happen that could have been prevented, or by manufacturing a fall guy to carry out an attack, and get away with it. The GOP, Democrats, and the mass media, after all, have ruled raising questions about the wisdom or effectiveness of the “anti-terrorist” measures out of order. The traditional safeguards, such as the separation of powers that are supposed to prevent such a cynical ploy from being carried out have been eliminated.
If this sounds hard to believe, consider the fact that Bush and Cheney were caught red-handed fabricating the WMD excuse to invade Iraq, and they were still not impeached. They were caught red-handed torturing people, at least one hundred of them to death, and they were still not impeached or prosecuted.[iii]
They were caught red-handed spying on every single American in felonious violation of the law, including every senator, congressperson, prosecutor and judge, and they were still not impeached or prosecuted. If these transgressive acts were not punished but were retroactively approved with their underlying excuses endorsed by both major parties, then it should be no surprise that these policies would then continue. Is it any wonder, then, that Obama has been continuing their policies and in some very important respects going even further? The wonder would be if he actually attempted to put a stop to it all.
A Disorderly New Order
Walmart’s rock bottom pricing and insistence on lowering prices every year on staples forces suppliers to employ the cheapest labor the globe offers. This produces job losses domestically and hollows out the economic activity and viability of Main Street businesses around the country. It accelerates deindustrialization and the consequent rise of illicit and gray- and black-market economic activities, since licit activities are disappearing. In Detroit, for instance, real estate depends heavily for its viability upon drug dealers who represent one of the only thriving economic activities around. In China, millions of involuntary migrants undergird the country’s race for economic power, even as the government treats them as hooligans. The drug trade in the US represents a highly profitable—and therefore violent—business because the drug war drives the value of the drugs up and therefore spawns drug dealers aplenty, both domestically and internationally. The drug war itself, therefore, has contributed substantially to the funding of anti-state terrorist groups that profit from the opium, for instance, of the poppy fields in Afghanistan.
Muslims’ antipathy for the West grows directly out of the policies being carried out, especially by the West and the US, not by the fact that “they hate our freedoms,” as Bush claimed. Neoliberalism, in other words, creates and expands the populations and activities that it then turns around to label as dire threats to its brave new disorderly order. Put another way, the forces insisting that order is under siege and that repression and extralegal measures are necessary to cope with that disorder are the same forces creating disorder in the society by dispossessing increasing ranks of the people, endangering the planet’s biosystem, and provoking greater and greater levels of social insecurity.
Neoliberal regimes’ ever-growing inequities produce dissension and dissatisfaction, not because the disaffected elect to feel disaffection—although the already privileged tend to see it that way, as if there is bounty for all if everyone would simply put their noses to the grindstone, there being no structural logic to the dispossession of so many for the wealth of the few. Rather, the disadvantaged’s status brings them into conflict with those that the system favors. The position of the disadvantaged is what makes them criminal, dangerous, and potential terrorists. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, pp. 151-154)
What is involved here, then, is not just the murders by drone by the Nobel Peace Prize winner and his administration’s justifications for murdering children. What is involved is a momentous shift in the nature of governance overall and the opening of the floodgates to tyrannical actions all wrapped up in the deceitful rhetoric of protecting Americans: “In order to save Americans, we have to kill Americans.”
[i] See Chapter Three of my book Globalization and the Demolition of Society.
[iii] Glenn Greenwald, “The Suppressed Fact: Deaths by U.S. Torture,” Salon.com, June 30, 2009, http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2009/06/30/accountability, accessed February 14, 2011.
This article originally appeared on dennisloo.com on February 8, 2013.