Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Today and the 18th Brumaire




        My friend Terrell Carver from the University of Bristol in England sent me the following note on “is this law?” here and the dangers of a police state in America (this is much of the theme of past posts including here). 

     “Very much the message of Marx's 18th Brumaire, by the way, the very thin line between democracy and authoritarianism ... crossed when those who are supposed to safeguard democratic values (esp. legislators) vote in authoritarianism (and thus don't act against it). I was looking back to Thatcher when I made this argument in a published chapter:
Carver, TF. 'Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: Democracy, Dictatorship, and the Politics of Class Struggle', in Baehr, P, and Richter, M (Eds.), Dictatorship in History and Theory: Bonapartism, Caesarism, and Totalitarianism, (pp. 103-127), Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN: 0521825636 
But events in the US repeated the 'example' in spades ... not that reference to Marx solves anything, just an under-rated part of the 'heritage', I thought.
bw, Terrell”

     First, an oligarchy with parliamentary forms as I call it in Democratic Individuality  – what we speak of as a democracy today – is always also a dictatorship for many people, notably immigrants (see Trucks here).  But racism toward immigrants, for example, the wall being constructed along the Mexican border (you can see all the Saudis flocking across the border; at the millennium, Clinton stopped some terrorists entering the United States, from… Canada) is linked to the recruitment of an extralegal, or proto-fascist militia (in Italy, vigilantes empowered by the new law, see the Hunting of immigrants here).  Unsurprisingly, most ordinary people, black, latin and white, including in the middle class have been losing out economically and in social services; the top 1/10 of 1% has made out like bandits under Clinton and especially under Bush (see Kevin Phillips, Wealth and Democracy).  Perhaps I should emphasize  the particular chicanery or alienation of the “insurance” companies.  As Paul Krugman writes yesterday in “An Incoherent Truth,”  one of the aims of the health care bill is to regulate insurance so that one cannot be excluded for “preexisting conditions.”  The point of insurance is to cover everyone so that there is enough of a pool to help those who are ill, to help each of us when we fall ill..  It is decent morally because what each of us contributes to help others eventually comes back to us in our time of need (the Christian thoughts: there but for the grace of God go I, and if I help noone, who will help me in my time of need? speak to this point.  We are each mortal.  To exclude the very ill and when “covering them,” to drain family incomes and produce destitution  is not just alienation but  a sheer evil.  One might think John Yoo is morally deficient compared to people who run and work for these companies, but that would be a mistake (see Democratic Individuality, ch. 7 for an analysis of how Marx’s and Hegel’s notion of alienation rests on Aristotle’s eudaimonism, the notion that relationsnips and activities should be done for the right reasons, not for money or status).

       Second, we are now miraculously in the Obama administration, in which I have found much to be grateful for.  There may well be, still, a health care reform which encompasses even the Blue Dog Democrats (Mr. Tauzin, the original Blue Dog in 1996, switched to the Republicans and is now making his fortune lobbying for the insurance companies – he is an emblem of Marx’s theme in the 18th Brumaire) if there is enough pressure from below.  At least everyone will be covered – younger people often run the risk lack of coverage because it is so expensive; the poor cannot get treatment (even in real emergencies, in crowded emergency rooms), and particularly macho guys who ignore their bodies go down with illness) and ending exclusion for actually being ill.  Insurance should insure: a mountain top from here.  That would be a decent if small step; in the context of where we have been and where we are, a great thing.  Unlike the Republicans and many acquiescent Democrats, Obama means to do the right thing and has some possibility of doing it.  Because of democratic revulsion against the Bush years – requiring, sadly, complete financial collapse - we live in a new situation.  This shows some of the potency or potential of democracy – even of an oligarchy with parliamentary forms – given democratic or class struggle from below. Many of the great reforms – the unemployment and union legislation of the 1930s, the civil rights act – came from such movements.  But the “malefactors of great wealth,” as FDR called them, are visible here too, fighting every step of the way, to weaken initial proposals and gut changes. The 18th Brumaire is not in itself a success story about such things; the June insurrection of the Paris workers had a brief influence but was quickly suppressed and then superseded by a police state.   Marx’s story there does not illuminate these (perhaps also consistent with a sophisticated radical theory) insights.

        Third, as I emphasized in Marx’s Politics: Communists and Citizens, the international situation was decisive in Marx’s thinking about how there could be a proletarian revolution, immediately following the democratic one, in backward (four-fifths peasant) Germany in 1848. In that year, there were a wave of democratic movements, Chartism, the French February Revolution and June insurrection, an uprising in Poland, and many others spread across Europe.  Capitalist England and tsarist Russia united to fight them. International situations (and domestic ones) shift; every historical situation is new or contingent  (defying Marx’s abstract, or taken literally economic determinist formulations in surprising ways); not just anything is possible, but quite a lot.  Hence, my new book Emancipation and Independence (Chicago, forthcoming) will consider in depth the possibility that gradual emancipation of slaves was a possibility in the American Revolution not just in the North – where it occurred – but even in the South). 

       In the rise of Nazism and fascism in Europe, the Russian Revolution and class struggle – the suppression of the workers’ uprising and the Spartacists in Germany, for example, or the peasant revolt in Italy or the Asturian miners’ revolt in Spain – helped generate enthusiasm in the elite, for der Fuehrer, il Duce and other examples of one man-depravity.  In the overthrow of Allende in Chile and the murderous Pinochet regime, American imperialism, military aid and manipulation played a leading role  (Kissinger personally oversaw the murder of General Rene Schneider, commander in chief of the Chilean army and loyal to democracy – see Christopher Hitchens, The Trial of Henry Kissinger).  In what realists might call a typical boomerang, the American government’s spawning of terror – training Bin Laden  to bring down the pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan helped to turn him, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, American crimes in Palestine and Iraq (the boycott) and primarily, installing American military bases on the sacred sites of Mecca and Medina, to strike at the United States.  The interantional setting plays a unique and powerful role.  In addition, class struggle from below has been enormously weakened in America – the decline of unions and the erosion of many features of the New Deal (we still have unemployment insurance and social security).  But there has been class struggle here, of an unheard of sort, from above (Marx used to speak of the vampire like hunger of capital for every last second of the workers time – see chapter 10 of Capital on “The Working Day” - but could not have imagined the rapacious American elite. I used to joke that Cheney is already (un)dead and decided to move into a crypt with Dracula, but the vampire, frightened and protesting that he came by his bloodsucking naturally and had only taken a few lives over the centuries and those mostly for passion and not the money, moved out….). In this international situation, class or perhaps more accurately democratic struggle in America has been terribly one-sided until the election of Obama.

        Fourth, Jack Balkin who teaches constitutional law at Yale has made the subtle point that in American democracy, epochal legal and what one might call regime changes are produced when the President and sometimes Congress of one party initiate reforms – the New Deal  and what he names the administrative state – and then a later President of another party confirms them – Eisenhower after 1952.  Bipartisanship is vital to consolidation.   Balkin speaks of the National Surveillance State initiated by Bush.  I prefer to call this with Strauss (whose imagining it was) a tyranny of the kind he favored, a great reactionary tyrant (of course, Strauss wanted an anti-modern tyrant, but once they have finished conquering, the arbitrary killings and genocides, all fascists live off the bizarreness of capitalism  and the market).

      Obama is a constitutional lawyer and has affection for the rule of law.  But if the rule of law functions even halfheartedly, most of the leaders of the Bush administration will be put on trial and short of pardons or Truth and Reconciliation, go to jail (I have a great desire to see the rule of law restored and the tyrannical apparatus put out of business, but not  for harsh punishment except where it is necessary).  I had hoped (and still hope) that Obama will allow the law to reassert itself, take its course.  I think he did with releasing the torture memoranda.  But the administration is invoking many Bush doctrines, notably state secrets.  In the Senate, candidate Obama voted for ex post facto immunization of the telecom conglomerates from prosecution for spying on Americans.   The man who talked about the cowardice of others in dealing with racism, Attorney General Eric Holder, looks as if he may prosecute only those who went beyond the crimes Yoo, commissioned by Cheney, sanctioned – even here Holder will have a hard time sticking to the rank and file since the Principals met in the White House to discuss particular regimens of torture for  prisoners before Yoo was ordered to gin up his excuses (these were hastily withdrawn by Jack Goldsmith as soon as he became head of the Office of Legal Council; that they were “law” no one but Yoo believes, unless Holder enshrines them).

     Balkin’s point holds.  A Democratic administration is confirming tyranny; Those who were critical of Bush often now are silent when Obama invokes the same executive power.  Who knows what American soldiers or CIA personnel do to prisoners in Bagram (often picked up off the street like Mr. Dilawar, the 22 year old taxi driver torturer to death there).  Obama is a decent person; he is also President of the United States, a wonderful but in certain way also very bad thing.  He is smart politician, but the complicated course he has charted will end up – without protest from below and intervention by the courts – as Balkin suggests, in a new and comparatively “legitimate” police state. 

     A result – whatever the equilibrium of the new American police state is - will probably  be sorted out not in Obama’s 4 or 8 years (absent another crisis at home), but in what comes afterward.  A Republican like Mitt Romney will not “double the size of Guantanamo” but will reinstute torture and spying.  Very likely, so will other Democrats.  The time when all of this is being shaped is now.  Each of us – and all of us – can make a difference in fighting for habeas corpus and the rule of law, for hearings and punishments.  We battle an elite which as in the Washington Post editorial yesterday is perfectly content to have only CIA underlings prosecuted.   They don’t want the real criminals, their dinner guests as it were, to whom they toady, prosecuted.    The 18th Brumaire and Balkin cast light on the worst places where bipartisan support for a police state  can potentially go.  But democratic possibilities from below and decency in the elite (manifest in the resigning of so many from the Bush administration and revulsion against it, an occasional New York Times editorial calling for investigation of some of the crimes and legal proceedings against those who ordered them) generate a greater spectrum of possibilities.  The time to speak is now. 

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