An Aesopian Tale

May 31, 2011

By Taki Manolakos

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The ‘American Idol’ was brought before the people of the United States in the wake of the Bin Laden affair. This Idol was a cold Nietzschean monster, presenting us with many lies. “I, the national state, am the people” was one of its favourite lies. Alas, this national state lies in many languages. Whatever it says, it lies; whatever it has, this is stolen. Just note how this national state attempted to devour the masses following the death of this Bin Laden. This idol likes to sun itself in the sunshine of good conscience. It will give you everything if you worship it, and no doubt in the wake of the Bin Laden affair, it demands to be worshiped [1].

In the course of a daily litany of provocations, the priests of this national state bellowed incantations highlighting an insignificant number of celebrations, within the United States, of the death of this Bin Laden. Media outlets insisted on framing the issue in accord with the politico-economic interest of their masters, though not only in U.S.A. Was the information leading to the death of Bin Laden extracted by torture ? Is torture an effective method of extracting information from prisoners ? Should the photographs of the corpse be released ? Did U.S. technology fall into the hands of the enemy during the encounter ? How much did Pakistan actually know about the whereabouts of this Bin Laden ? Under capitalism, instrumental rationality tends to dominate over consensual rationality and hence this dynamic naturally influences the mass media landscape. It was even reported that Bin Laden was a porn junkie. So it went, ad nauseum.

In order to shift the parameters of this debate, this essay aims to understand certain aspects of the Bin Laden affair that would be of interest to persons of a rational disposition. I begin by briefly addressing the political premises of the question of capitalist legality, i.e., was the assassination of Bin Laden legally permissible and in accord with U.S. and international law. This question has been debated in certain political circles. It is accordingly useful to recall a particular argument of Nicos Poulantzas concerning Law [2]. In a capitalist legal system, the dogmas of the rule of law give rise to an illusory binary Law-Terror. Nothing could be more mistaken, Poulantzas argued, however, than to contrast rule of law to the prince’s act of will as if the former precludes the latter. Such a mistake corresponds to a juridicial-legalist conception of the state. On the contrary, law is essential to the repressive order and the organisation of violence. Law enables assassinations and detentions to proceed, granting legitimacy in a specialised code of regulations governing the national-security apparatus.

By issuing rules and passing laws, the capitalist state conceptualises the terrain of violence. Law organises the conditions of physical repression and hence importantly constitutes a code of organised public violence. To illustrate this point further, consider a capitalist prison. This apparatus is strikingly similar to the capitalist nation except perhaps insofar as most of the prisoners perhaps have more clarity of mind about their relationship to the guards. In prisons, guards sometimes enter into agreements with a fraction of the inmates whereby the latter are endowed with the right to conduct acts of violence in the interest of the prison authorities, in exchange for privileges such as the monopoly of trade in certain goods. This false binary Law-Terror is shattered within the prison, as in the national security apparatus, where Law is Terror. Therefore, to pose the question of the legal permissibility of assassination in the context of the Bin Laden affair entails a significant political error.

Not only do state personnel crudely transgress the law, but the legal system enables the disregard of laws and even enter appropriate variables in the rules of the game as exemptions. Capitalism overflows with legal exemptions. It is not necessary for state personnel to always put forth crude lies, although these become imperative under definite conditions, and prime the pump for further militarisation of capitalist society. These higher interests of the State, which in some cases coincides with the idea of national security, require that legality is always compensated with illegalities. The U.S. legal system accordingly includes loopholes integral to the system itself. Thus, one can observe crude illegalities (e.g., murders by police in minority neighborhoods) next to exempted acts of repression (e.g., the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp).

Of course, law is not only negative in the sense that it amounts to more than a set of prohibitions. Law forbids, but also imposes obligations and prescribes certain forms of discourse; law often compel its subjects to speak and denounce others. Poulantzas quite aptly referred to these obligations as theatricals and noted that mechanisms of fear are crucial in this regard. Law materialises the dominant ideology, as does mass opinion in a contradictory manner, obscuring politico-economic realities, tolerating structural inequalities, and transposing these realities by means of concealment and inversion. The Bin Laden affair illustrated this aspect, in addition to the domination of instrumental over consensual rationality.

In relative terms, however, the masses in the United States simply do not care that much about the assassination of Bin Laden. Polling data suggest that the masses identify their primary concerns as economic, not terrorism and war. In a poll jointly conducted by C.B.S. News and the New York Times during the month of April 2011, for example, 39 percent of a scientifically selected sample of the U.S. population reported that the most important problem facing the country was the economy and the jobs situation; only four percent identified the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as their most pressing concerns. In October 2010, a poll jointly conducted by C.N.N. and the Opinion Research Corporation found that 52 percent identified the economy and the employment situation as their most pressing concern; only eight percent identified the wars as the most important problem facing the country. This ranking did not change in the wake of the death of Bin Laden. According to a Fox News poll conducted following the death of Bin Laden (15-17 May 2011), 50 percent believed that elected officials should immediately direct their attention to the problems of the economy and employment situation; only five percent identified ‘war and terrorism’ as a relatively pressing problem. Economics continues to matter to the masses in the United States rather more than the Bin Laden affair; this prioritisation is a good omen even though it might not be internationalist.

The sentiments of the masses concerning their economic realities, moreover, lean in a radically democratic direction. This observation is readily illustrated with reference to the General Social Survey, a data set that has been consistently collected in the United States since 1972. The G.S.S. contains a standard ‘core’ of demographic, behavioral, and attitudinal questions, plus modules on themes of special interest. Such polls offer a useful barometer of mass sentiment if we bear in mind their limitations [3]. For example, a standard question inquires if inequality exists ‘because it benefits the rich and powerful’. In 2008, 16 percent strongly agreed that it did and 38 percent simply agreed. Little wonder that the capitalist class continues to fret about the ‘economic illiteracy’ of the masses—the ignorant masses have little confidence in capitalist firms and financiers. In point of fact, the proportion of those that had ‘hardly any confidence in major corporations’ peaked in 2010 at 25 percent for the period 1973-2010. For banks and financial institutions, those reporting hardly any confidence in them peaked in 2010 at 42 percent while exhibiting a clear trend unfavourable to the financiers. The capitalists in the U.S. have correctly assessed this shift in the political weather.

Yet the left-liberal philistines in the U.S. continue to strive for the embourgeoisement of the working class and often appeal to the workers to defend the so-called American Dream. Following in the tradition of a famous comedian, however, the climate of opinion among the workers is basically that “it’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it”. In 2010, 47 percent of the U.S. population identified themselves as members of the working class—thereby disassociating themselves from the banal bourgeois category of ‘middle-class’. The left-liberal philistines in the U.S. also proceed to shower the workers with slogans appealing to the social responsibility of the capitalist class. One may take comfort in the fact that the people have more sense than these left-liberals. Note that 25 percent strongly agreed that management only cares about profits, and 47 percent simply agreed. It is also refreshing to observe that more than 63 percent of the U.S. population clearly believed that workers should be paid more than shareholders—a kind of unrepentant affirmation of the politico-ethical content of the labour theory of value—in 1991. In short, we learn by an examination of U.S. public opinion data that economic beliefs lean in a radically democratic direction.

It must be acknowledged, however, that not all is right in the so-called land of the free and a number of strong ideological problems continue to exist. One must not be too pessimistic on this score, but we must keep our eyes wide open. For instance, a strong majority in 1991 believed that they had control over their working conditions. When asked whether ‘my job is controlled by my machine’, 64 percent responded ‘not at all’ according to the G.S.S. data. During the period 2002-2010, over 85 percent consistently believed that they were treated with respect at work (perhaps having misunderstood the question to mean that they wish to be treated with respect at work). Such attitudes patently present the labour movement in the United States with significant problems.

Perhaps the most difficult problems confronting political workers in the U.S. concern the unholy trinity of imperialism, racism, and nationalism. To illustrate the point, a brief remark on racial prejudice can be made. The year 2011 was the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Civil War, which is sometimes called the “second American revolution”. In a poll conducted in early 2011, however, 36 percent believed that it was appropriate for public officials in the U.S. to be allowed to praise the leaders of the Confederacy. That such a large proportion of the population believes that one of the most potent symbols of racism in the United States – the Confederacy and its flag – has such legitimacy is a political problem of the first order. Survey data, it must also be noted, reveals that the U.S. population has contradictory opinions about the Muslim community. The only way to remedy such prejudice is by the democratic method, the method of discussion, criticism, and persuasion—not by the method of ridicule and scorn that is adopted by the left-liberals.

In order to adopt the democratic method against imperialism in particular, it is necessary to understand the attitudes of the masses in the United States concerning international questions. The Pew Research Center’s Report Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes : 1987-2007 provides relevant data [4]. One question in particular is especially of interest since it yields an insight to the relation between militarism and imperialism. In 2002, 62 percent believed that “[t]he best way to ensure peace is through military strength”. This slogan is of course classically militaristic. A year later, however, this attitude had changed somewhat and support for this slogan had fallen to 53 percent. In 2007, 49 percent claimed that maintaining military strength is the best way to ensure peace; mercifully, this estimated proportion was the lowest in the 20 year history of data collection for this survey.

On the other hand, opinions about whether one has an obligation to ‘fight for America’ regardless of whether it is ‘right or wrong’ have been stable since 1994. Neither the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, nor the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City had much of an impact on this belief. Overall, 50% agreed with the statement that “[w]e should all be willing to fight for our country, whether it is right or wrong”. Such a context is especially fecund for anti-imperialist agitation. Indeed, another report entitled America’s Place in the World finds an increase in so-called isolationist sentiment [5]. For the first time in nearly half a century of polling, mass opinion in the United States is divided on the question of whether the country should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own”. Nearly half or 49% believe that it should. Additionally, 76% now say that the U.S. government should “concentrate more on our own national problems and building up our strength and prosperity here at home”; this estimated proportion is approaching the previous 45-year high set in the early 1990s. Such results must be taken as very good news and indicate that anti-imperialist agitation is germane.

A brief digression is required about differential opinions on international questions across subpopulations in the United States, in particular those with varying levels of education. In the post-WWII period, it has been generally observed by political scientists that “the educated” tend to offer relatively more support for the idea that the U.S. government must take an “active part” in international affairs. In contrast, those with only a primary or secondary education tend to be less supportive of the U.S. government’s “active participation” in international affairs, possibly having correctly determined that such “active participation” generally correlates with imperial adventures that do not accord with their interests. In 2006, 60 percent of the G.S.S. sample responded that the United States government ought to “take an active part” in international affairs—the lowest estimated proportion since 1973. Of those that were not awarded a high school diploma, 47 percent affirmed the desirability of taking “an active part” in world affairs in contrast to 57 percent of those with a high school diploma. Yet 73 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree and 84 percent of those with a graduate degree affirmed a belief in such active participation. Such a differences of opinion across levels of education have been relatively stable over time. The working class, who predominantly have only high school diplomas, tends to be more concerned with immediate economic issues than the imperialist machinations of the U.S. bourgeoisie; does not have much at stake in protecting overseas investments of imperialists; and, tends to bear the burdens of imperial adventures more than the ruling class. Those with higher levels of education possibly they receive a relatively strong dose of the ideology propagated by ruling class institutions (e.g., anti-communism) [6].

Unfortunately, a section of so-called radicals and left-liberals in the U.S. believe that mass opinion is essentially reactionary or conservative. Quite the contrary, it must be stressed that public opinion is contradictory. Consider the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon as an illustration of these contradictions. The Israeli pursuit of the P.L.O. killed many non-combatants, leading to a virtual destruction of that country. To a stratum of popular opinion, Israel became an aggressor while the spotlight on Lebanon inculcated a greater awareness of the plight of the Palestinians. Although public opinion was initially lukewarm to the idea of deploying U.S. marines to Beirut in September 1982, which was to last for about 16 months, attitudes shifted unevenly over time. In October 1982, 49 percent of the U.S. population expressed agreement with the deployment of U.S. troops to Lebanon. By September 1983, however, 58 percent believed that the U.S. military should be withdrawn from Lebanon. This estimated proportion declined to to 46 percent by the end of October 1983 following the bombing that killed 241 U.S. marines, but this decline was transient. Survey data indicated a large increase in sentiments favouring withdrawal, from 63 percent in January 1984, to 81 percent in February 1984. Relatedly, during the Palestinian intifada that began in December 1987, the I.D.F. repression elicited a negative response in U.S. mass opinion. Pro-Israel responses to ‘the sympathy question’ fell from 56% to 39%, from February 1987 to February 1988 [7].

Such is our political terrain, again, which is quite favourable to anti-imperialist and radically democratic agitations. Even in the wake of the Bin Laden assassination, 59 percent expressed opposition to the war in Afghanistan (5-9 May 2011), which is not statistically different from the estimated proportion giving this response in July 2009. Moreover, when asked if the United States should “keep military troops in Afghanistan until the situation has stabilized” or “remove troops as soon as possible”, 49 percent opted for the latter; this estimated proportion was statistically indistinguishable from the state of affairs immediately preceding the Bin Laden affair. It is best not remain idle in the face of such political openings.

Accordingly, let us very briefly consider the question of the determinants of U.S. mass opinion. Unfortunately, I can only indicate the appropriate direction of analysis in this essay and do not dwell on this question at length. Mass opinion regarding military expenditure provides a number of relevant insights. According to a poll conducted in February 2011, 39 percent of the U.S. population said the country spends too much on the military, 22 precent said it spends too little, and 35 percent said military spending is ‘about right’. This plurality favouring reductions in military spending has generally been observed over the 42-year history of this survey question with noteworthy exceptions observed at the beginning of the Reagan administration in 1981 and in the early 2000s. In the former case, those responding that “we are spending too much” on the military was estimated to be 36 percent in January 1976; this estimated proportion had fallen to 15 percent in January 1981, for a decline of 21 percentage points. In contrast, an estimated 19 percent believed that the United States was “spending too much” on the military in February 2001; this estimated proportion was statistically indistinguishable of that following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City (17 percent in February 2002).

What factors can explain this large shift in attitudes regarding military expenditures during the Reagan period ? In the 1970s, certain groups funded by military firms and multinational corporations began to raise slogans against alleged increases in Soviet military expenditures (e.g., the anti-communist National Strategy Information Center or N.S.I.C.). The N.S.I.C. was incorporated in 1962 by a man that later became director of C.I.A. and other capitalists; it experienced growth in funding during the mid 1970s and initiated a propaganda assault on the question of U.S. military spending. Additionally, in 1972, members of a group called Coalition for Democratic Majority had begun to oppose détente. In 1976, an organisation called the Committee on the Present Danger was formed (C.P.D.). C.P.D. had backing from Hewlett-Packard—a major weapons contractor—and conducted a large-scale campaign through the 1970s drawing attention to an allegedly massive Soviet military buildup and advocating very large increases in U.S. military expenditures. The emergence of this propaganda effort was an important factor in the determination of mass support of increased military expenditures in 1981. Members of C.P.D. moved into key positions in the U.S. state department and the Pentagon during Reagan’s presidency and their propaganda effort intensified. In 1982-83, members of the Regan administration promoted the idea that the attempt to assassinate the Pope had been a plot by the K.G.B.. These assertions were not even based on weak evidence [8].

Of course, media exposure is not the sole determinant of mass opinion. There are additional factors that affected this massive shift in favour of increased military spending that should not be neglected. A statistical investigation of public opinion in major U.S. cities confirms this view with a data set constructed from a number of major media market surveys [9]. Key findings of this investigation included that prior beliefs affect preferences for military expenditure; individuals who do not trust politicians are less likely to support increased military expenditures; the African-American community is relatively less inclined to support increases in military expenditures; Latinos/Latinas are relatively less inclined to support increases in military expenditure; women are less likely to support increases in military expenditures; higher incomes are correlated with higher support for increased military expenditure; education is positively related to support for increased military expenditure; and, age is positively related to support for increased military expenditure. This study also concluded that the 9/11 attacks on New York City did not increase support for higher levels of military spending. It would appear, therefore, that both objective and subjective variables influence support for increased levels of military spending.

The crucial issue for political workers, however, pertains to the relationship between mass movements raising radically democratic demands, mass opinion, and fundamental shifts in the politico-economic structures of exploitation and imperialism. In the final analysis, mass movements shift public opinion and the structures of politico-economic exploitation under appropriate objective conditions. History requires that this lesson not be forgotten.

The nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s is especially pertinent in this regard. Following a convocation of civil society groups in December 1979, this nuclear freeze movement began to win strong mass support. Large majorities endorsed the idea of a freeze on the construction, testing, and deployment of nuclear weapons. According to an A.B.C. poll, this estimated proportion was 79 percent in April 1982 and rose to 84 percent in April 1984. In each year from 1981-1985, 78-81 percent favoured a nuclear freeze. In June 1982, roughly 750,000 persons protested in favour of a nuclear freeze in New York City—in one of the largest U.S mass demonstrations of the 20th century [10]. A number of nuclear freeze proposals won in referenda across the United States. Interestingly, the emergence of this nuclear freeze movement corresponded to a significant reductions in mass support for large military expenditures after the 1981 peak. The idea that the masses could “smash the idol” began to seem plausible again. This nuclear freeze movement caused division among the ruling class, and even elicited support from pro-capitalist elements that quickly attempted to attach themselves to the movement (e.g., Union of Concerned Scientists). The alarmed Reagan administration considered initiating a propaganda campaign against the movement. Eventually, the nuclear freeze movement was co-opted. Various politicians and academicians attempted to mute the nuclear freeze movement by raising diluted slogans that called for modernising strategic weapons. But the political conclusions to be drawn from the nuclear freeze movement became clear for all to see.

The nuclear freeze movement exposed the Nietzschean idol. Perhaps, then, it is best to conclude with an Aesopian Tale. When the god Hermes wished to learn how esteemed he was among humans, Hermes took the form of a man and visited the workshop of a sculptor. Seeing an idol of Zeus, king of the gods, he asked for its price. The sculptor replied : ‘The price is one drachma’. Hermes smiled and asked : ‘How much for that idol of Hera, queen of the gods ?’ ‘It is more expensive’ was the sculptor’s reply. Hermes then noticed a statue of himself. He presumed that, being the messenger of Zeus and the god of profit, he was held in higher esteem with humans. He asked the price and the sculptor responded : ‘Oh, if you buy the first two, I’ll throw in that one for free’.

It is thus with the masses in the United States. We must all recognise the true value of the Nietzschean idol.

Endnotes

[1] Thus spoke Zarathustra. Nietzsche, F.W. 2005. Oxford University Press. U.S.A.

[2] State, Power, Socialism. Poulantzas, N. 2000. Verso Books. U.K.

[3] The Rational Public : Fifty Years of Trends in American’s Policy Preferences. Page, B.I. & Shapiro, R.Y. 1992. University of Chicago Press. U.S.A.

[4] Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes : 1987-2007. 22 March 2007. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

[5] America’s Place in the World 2009 : An Investigation of Public and Leadership Opinion About International Affairs . December 2009. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in association with the Council of Foreign Relations.

[6] The Rational Public : Fifty Years of Trends in American’s Policy Preferences. Page, B.I. & Shapiro, R.Y. 1992. University of Chicago Press. U.S.A.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Citizen support for military expenditures : a longitudinal analysis of U.S. public opinion, 1999-2002”. Simon, C.A. & Lovich, N.P. Armed Forces & Society 36(3).

[10] The Rational Public : Fifty Years of Trends in American’s Policy Preferences. Page, B.I. & Shapiro, R.Y. 1992. University of Chicago Press. U.S.A.

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