Volatility

February 10, 2010

Imperialism vs. the Law

 

The Napoleonic failure to unite Europe under the French flag was a clear indication that conquest by a nation led either to a full awakening of the conquered people’s national consciousness and to consequent rebellion against the conqueror, or to tyranny. And though tyranny, because it needs no consent, may successfully rule over foreign peoples, it can stay in power only if it destroys first of all the national institutions of its own people.

 
So says Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism.
 
That’s our theme – how conquest which seeks nothing but economic exploitation must in the end rule tyrannically, and how this in turn must bring tyranny back to the imperial country itself. Those who have fought imperialism on behalf of the exploited and conquered have always also been fighting for their own liberty which was under implicit, and increasingly explicit, assault. Over the past decade that’s been proven true with great ferocity, as the long economic assault on America’s non-rich, and on our politics and press, has been joined by the vicious assault on civil liberties, the freedoms of speech and assembly, the rise of the imperial presidency, the militarized police, and the prison-industrial complex.
 
Today we have to look at everything in the sense of dissolving the rule of law. The law of the home country is no longer indigenous, “national” law, but the imperialist state “law” which is really nothing but process for the sake of maximized corporatist outcome (to put it in terms of jurisprudential philosophy, the corporatists are consequentialists all the way, they care about means only toward an end, while those who would ever stand fanatically on some myopic means, like the ACLU and other process fanatics where it came to the Citizens United case, are once again playing by rules the enemy will never pay by; I’ll revisit this in an upcoming post). “Law” as would be fit only for the extralegal, anti-political business competition becomes the “law” of the country. Corporatized capitalism becomes the ruling social ideology.
 
A core part of the process of imperialism coming home is the breakdown of the rule of law. In that connection I found this article by Claude Salhani interesting. He broaches the possibility of Israel joining the European Union. The implications he discusses seem so far-fetched that reading it, I thought it was tongue-in-cheek. “They’ll just get a waiver for that”, I kept saying. But I think he was serious.
 
But meanwhile maybe we should read it in reverse. In that case its a fascinating piece, almost Swiftian. For everything he says would have to change in Israel, I think we need to make the experiment of reading it as, “This is how the EU has to change to become more like Israel.” (And the US too.)
 
Salhani starts out deploring the “deadlock” in the Middle east peace talks and its ruinous effect on imperial investment in the Mideast. He goes on:
 

And whenever trouble brews in the Middle East it tends to spill over into other parts of the world. The risk that Mideast violence could spread to nearby Europe might have been one of the reasons that pushed Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to say that Israel should be admitted into the European Union earlier this week. Berlusconi made the statement during an official state visit to Israel. Berlusconi, of course, is one of Israel’s strongest supporters.

 
But what is Israel? It’s not just any country. It has a very well-defined role as ground zero for the totalitarian security-industrial complex, all of whose aspects have radiated out from that core.
 
Naomi Klein describes this in Shock Doctrine:
 

What makes Israel interesting as a guns-and-caviar model is not only that its economy is resilient in the face of major political shocks such as the 2006 war with Lebanon or Hamas’s 2007 takeover of Gaza, but also that Israel has crafted an economy that expands markedly in direct response to escalating violence. The reasons for Israeli industry’s comfort level with disaster are not mysterious. Years before US and European companies grasped the potential of the global security boom, Israeli technology firms were busily pioneering the homeland security industry, and they continue to dominate the sector today…From a corporate perspective, this development has made Israel a model to be emulated in the post-9/11 market. From a social and political perspective, however, Israel should serve as something else – a stark warning. The fact that Israel continues to enjoy booming prosperity, even as it wages war against its neighbors and escalates its brutality in the conquered territories, demonstrates just how perilous it is to build an economy based on the premise of continual war and deepening disasters.

 
It’s the frontier outpost and proving ground for all imperial assaults:
 

Israel’s case is extreme, but the kind of society it is creating may not be unique. The disaster capitalism complex thrives in conditions of low-intensity grinding conflict. That seems to be the end point in all the disaster zones, from New Orleans to Iraq. In April 2007, US soldiers began implementing a plan to turn several volatile Baghdad neighborhoods into “gated communities”, surrounded by checkpoints and concrete walls, where residents would be tracked using biometric technology. “We’ll be like the Palestinians”, predicted one resident, watching his neighborhood being sealed in by the barrier. After it becomes clear that Baghdad is never going to be Dubai, and New Orleans won’t be Disneyland, Plan B is to settle into another Colombia or Nigeria – never-ending war, fought in large measure by private soldiers and paramilitaries, damped down just enough to get the natural resources out of the ground, helped along by mercenaries guarding the pipelines, platforms, and water reserves.

 
Salhani referred to the “spill over” of “trouble” from the Middle East. Nowhere is this more true than the toxic mindset and practices of Israeli crypto-totalitarianism. That’s what imperialism wants, to bring all its trouble home.
 
With that in mind let’s delve into the Salhani piece (he’s talking about Europe, while I’ll mostly talk about America, but I see these same processes playing out everywhere, and therefore examples specific to one place are usually generally applicable):
 

First of all, no prospective partner of the Brussels club can be allowed to join the European Union while it occupies territory that is not legally recognized as part of its own. Israel’s adhesion into the European Union would have to be preceded by a complete withdrawal of Israeli military and civilian forces from all Palestinian territory. That would mean that before such a withdrawal can happen a peace deal will have to be reached between the Palestinians and the Jewish State.

 
Or alternatively, they’d have to “legalize” this occupation, just like how the patently illegal war in Iraq was legalized. That’s the first “waiver” I thought he was hinting at.
 

Israel’s admission into the European Union would mean that the highways and security roads that Palestinians are not allowed to travel on would have to disappear. It would be inadmissible to have segregated roads in the European Union. Imagine if Italy, France or Germany, for example, banned certain ethnic groups from traveling on its national highways.

 
America already had the terrorist color code system where, under a red alert, highways and such may be arbitrarily shut down. They may have gotten rid of the colors, but the looming policy is still the same.
 
Of course, the movement to privatize American roads, to ration their use according to wealth, is already well underway.  Rendering non-luxuries artificially expensive and then rationing them by ability to pay the extortion price is just the same tyranny by another name.
 
And we don’t really have to imagine “certain ethnic groups” having a hard time on America’s highways. Racial profiling already accomplishes that.
 

The Separation Barrier (official United Nations designation) which Israel calls a “fence,” and Palestinians refer to as an “Apartheid Wall;” in reality a series of segments of a wall resembling the Berlin Wall, ditches and moats, erected between Israel proper and the West Bank to keep potential terrorists out, would have to come down. It would be unimaginable for a member of the EU to maintain such a symbol of segregation.

 
Of course our Mexico wall is well known.
 

Similarly the situation regarding Gaza would have to be resolved. Again, it is unimaginable for a European country to lay siege to a neighboring territory.

 
Lay siege to a neighborhood? LAPD, anyone? Speaking more generally, America is full of physical walls as well as less tangible boundaries aggressively patrolled by various kinds of goons. The siege itself may not yet be as coordinated as the mindset, but the mindset is every bit as aggressive as that in Israel. So it’s no wonder anyone who wants to build a physical wall looks to their example, and often to their contractors.
 

But that is not all. The whole concept of the European Union, the world’s largest economic and political zone, which saw the day shortly after the end of World War II, was to tie the economies of Europe’s countries in such a way that war would simply become unimaginable. Nations that spent centuries fighting each other – England and France, France and Germany, Germany and its neighbors to the east, and so on and so forth – began building the foundation to make those wars a thing of the past and inconceivable in the future. And it worked. Today war between once former foes in Europe is just not possible. To be sure, there may well be disagreements between members of the EU, but the disputes are settled in the European Parliament or at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Not on the battlefield any longer. This is an example from which the Middle East could greatly benefit.

 
The rhetoric here is reminiscent of Norman Angell’s sadly misguided utopia. But more truthfully, whether Salhani intends this reading or not, the coded message is clear: totalitarian repression prevents the Palestinians from fighting back against Israel. So we Western elites can all learn the lesson in our war upon our own people.
 
Salhani wraps it up:
 

Is any of this possible? Yes, would say the optimist in me, but with a caveat. Unilateral withdrawal from Arab lands is unrealistic and dangerous for the security of Israel. And Israel’s domestic and foreign policy is driven by its security needs. So the bottom line is this: If Israel wants to become a member of the European Union, even with all the backing of the Italian prime minister, and others, it would first have to negotiate peace with its Arab neighbors. And that is a good thing.

 
The realist in me says that paragraph proves that the whole idea’s a joke. He may be an Angell-style “optimist”, but the idea can have application only through its inversion. We don’t export peace to troubled regions, but import tyrannical methods of dealing with the trouble. We bring it home as our new, alien law.
 
Nietzsche knew the true nature of this alien anti-law, in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra:
 

State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it tells lies too, and this lie crawls out of its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.”

Where there is still a people, it does not understand the state and hates it as the evil eye and the sin against customs and rights.
Every people speaks its tongue of good and evil, which the neighbor does not understand. It has invented its own language of customs and rights. But the state tells lies in all the tongues of good and evil, and whatever it says, it lies, and whatever it has it has stolen. Everything about it is false; it bites with stolen teeth. Confusion of tongues of good and evil: this sign I give you as the sign of the state. This sign signifies the will to death.

Behold, how it lures them, and how it devours them, chews them, and ruminates!
“On earth there is nothing greater than I: the ordering finger of God am I” – thus roars the monster.

 
That’s the corporatist state. There’s nothing organic about it, nothing national, nothing rooted in history, rooted in the soil, evolved out of ancient culture, there’s nothing human about it, and since it partakes of nothing human, it is not a Law for human beings, but an anti-law to destroy humanity and freedom. It is indeed a monster.
 
This is the false bureaucratic “law” of globalization. It’s the secretive pseudo-law of the WTO, the SPP, what the FTAA would have been and still will be if the neoliberals get their way. (Just yesterday I wrote about the pending “free” trade deal Obama’s pushing.) “Law” – directly administrative, administered by a bureaucratic machine and secret tribunals.
 

Dani Rodrik has posited the existence of a policy trilemma:

I have an “impossibility theorem” for the global economy that is like that. It says that democracy, national sovereignty and global economic integration are mutually incompatible: we can combine any two of the three, but never have all three simultaneously and in full…

To see why this makes sense, note that deep economic integration requires that we eliminate all transaction costs traders and financiers face in their cross-border dealings. Nation-states are a fundamental source of such transaction costs. They generate sovereign risk, create regulatory discontinuities at the border, prevent global regulation and supervision of financial intermediaries, and render a global lender of last resort a hopeless dream. The malfunctioning of the global financial system is intimately linked with these specific transaction costs.

So what do we do?

One option is to go for global federalism, where we align the scope of (democratic) politics with the scope of global markets. Realistically, though, this is something that cannot be done at a global scale. It is pretty difficult to achieve even among a relatively like-minded and similar countries, as the experience of the EU demonstrates.

Another option is maintain the nation state, but to make it responsive only to the needs of the international economy. This would be a state that would pursue global economic integration at the expense of other domestic objectives…. The collapse of the Argentine convertibility experiment of the 1990s provides a contemporary illustration of its inherent incompatibility with democracy.

Finally, we can downgrade our ambitions with respect to how much international economic integration we can (or should) achieve. So we go for a limited version of globalization, which is what the post-war Bretton Woods regime was about (with its capital controls and limited trade liberalization). It has unfortunately become a victim of its own success. We have forgotten the compromise embedded in that system, and which was the source of its success.

So I maintain that any reform of the international economic system must face up to this trilemma. If we want more globalization, we must either give up some democracy or some national sovereignty. Pretending that we can have all three simultaneously leaves us in an unstable no-man’s land.

 
Thus Dani Rodrik, an ardent globalizer himself, laid out the “trilemma”. How you can’t have democracy, national institutions, and free trade. At least one has to go.
 
But even this is in fact a distortion of the truth. The record proves that globalization cannot coexist with either sovereignty (except perhaps for the richest countries) or democracy (at all). By definition free trade is at war with democracy, and is either the aggressive weapon of or the assault upon any particular country, depending upon how wealthy it is.
 
When we look at Gitmo, at the secret CIA dungeon system; when we look at how in Iraq they established a lawless administrative zone similar to the Nazis’ General Government of Poland; when we look at the lawless “free trade zones” Klein writes about in No Logo and Shock Doctrine; when we look at the “supreme” court’s recent enemy combatant case laying the groundwork for gutting habeas corpus for all citizens, once and for all, forever (and what a contrast – within weeks of one another we have decisions declaring corporations to have total personal rights while actual flesh-and-blood people are to be legally declared unpersons; that juxtaposition proves we no longer have a legitimate judicial branch of government, but an abdicated rogue, but “still out in the field commanding troops [“Apocalypse Now”]); when we look at how vicious bankruptcy law became in 2005, how we inch ever closer to the restoration of debtors’ prisons (is that the real reason they’re so harsh with deadbeat dads? To set a precedent? Given the way the system acts in most other cases, gutting all social services, reducing contraception access etc., it’s hard to believe the sincere purpose is to be mother-friendly); when we look at these and far too many other examples, we see the net being cast around us.
 
I’ll finish with a consideration. Arendt, in discussing the British method of colonial rule, considers how oppression can either concentrate resistance or atomize it.
 

The British tried to escape the dangerous inconsistency inherent in the nation’s attempt at empire building by leaving the conquered peoples to their own devices as far as culture, religion, and law were concerned, by staying aloof and refraining from spreading British law and culture. This did not prevent the natives from developing national consciousness and from clamoring for sovereignty and independence – though it may have retarded the process somewhat. But it has strengthened tremendously the new imperialist consciousness of a fundamental, and not just a temporary, superiority of man over man, of the “higher” over the “lower” breeds….

 
They are in fact leaving to us pop culture, TV, sports, all that crap. And we still have our “religion” which clearly means nothing to anyone any longer. Indeed the churches shill for the system. For most it’s far more like Brave New World than 1984, though this will change as we sink back into serfdom.
 
In The True Believer Eric Hoffer compares resistance where there still exist social and cultural institutions, to circumstances where all such institutions have been liquidated, leaving behind only atomized individuals.
 

The capacity to resist coercion stems partly from the individual’s identification with a group. The people who stood up best in the Nazi concentration camps were those who felt themselves members of a compact party (the Communists) of a church (priests and ministers), or of a close-knit national group. The individuals, whatever their nationality, caved in. The Western European Jew proved to be the most defenseless. Without vital ties with a Jewish community, he faced his tormentors alone. One realizes now that the ghetto of the Middle Ages was for the Jews more a fortress than a prison. Without the sense of utmost unity and distinctness which the ghetto imposed upon them, they could not have endured with unbroken spirit the violence and abuse of those dark centuries. When the Middle Ages returned for a brief decade in our day, they caught the Jew without his ancient defenses and crushed him.

The conclusion seems to be that when the individual faces torture or annihilation, he cannot rely on the resources of his own individuality. His only source of strength is in not being himself but part of something mighty, glorious, and indestructible. Faith here is primarily a process of identification; the process by which the individual ceases to be himself and becomes part of something eternal. Faith in humanity, in posterity, in the destiny of one’s religion, nation, race, party, or family – what is it but the visualization of that eternal something to which we attach the self that is about to be annihilated?

 
Do we now seek new institutions? Nietzsche asks in Twilight of the Idols:
 

In order that there may be institutions, there must be a kind of will, instinct, or imperative, which is anti-liberal to the point of malice: the will to tradition, to authority, to responsibility for centuries to come, to the solidarity of chains of generations, forward and backward to the horizons….

The whole of the West no longer possesses the instincts out of which institutions grow, out of which a future grows: perhaps nothing antagonizes its “modern spirit” so much. One lives for the day, one lives very fast, one lives very irresponsibly: precisely this is called “freedom”. That which makes an institution an institution is despised, hated, repudiated: one fears the danger of a new slavery them moment the word “authority” is even spoken out loud. This is how far decadence has advanced in the value-instincts of our politicians, our political parties: instinctively they prefer what disintegrates, what hastens the end.

 
I add, today “the worst are full of passionate intensity” (Yeats) for money and corporate power, while all “politicians” and “parties” who could and should have fought for the people have become traitors. All our institutions have been corrupted.
 
Today we must choose: human community or atomization? We have the socioeconomic atomization of the corporate system, and increasingly the physical and media barriers with the individual atomized inside. We must contrast this with real communities. Where these exist, even physical barriers may not be prisons, as Hoffer wrote.
 
I look back to the opening quote about Napoleon’s conquests. It presents the same decision – community consciousness or tyranny? Now that tyranny is coming home, and America faces the need for a second national awakening in the face of this tyranny, can this be done?
 
Do we still have a civic identity to rally round as at a banner? Can we raise this banner, and raise a call to it? Or are we washed up?

4 Comments

  1. Obviously this guy is completely out of his mind.

    Comment by Edwardo — February 10, 2010 @ 10:36 pm

  2. When I ponder, who do I despise more than anyone, it’s a tossup.

    Is it the teabaggers who claim to want “freedom” and “the constitution” but who support the fascist Sarah Palin and her fascist wars and “Patriot” Act? Who call the right-wing neoliberal Obama a “socialist”? The level of either lying or stupidity is mind-boggling, and either way it’s aggressive and pro-fascist.

    Or is it the Obama hacks and cultists? The ones who are either too stupid to understand that Obama has done nothing but continue every Bush assault, or who are openly demonstrating how they’re just vile Dem Party hacks who never had a problem with Bush policy but only with the fact that it was Republicans doing it.

    Again, either way, they’re empowering creeping, and increasingly overt, fascism.

    So it’s two kinds of astroturf hacks, while the idiots on both sides who think Obama’s a “progressive” or a socialist, whether to support him or attack him, are just the same idiot.

    Comment by Russ — February 11, 2010 @ 4:12 am

  3. […] the same brutal plunder raid that imperialism has eternally been. (I wrote about it here and here, among many other times.)   In the end it’s always the same – power for power’s […]

    Pingback by Let’s Get Austere, Baby! « Volatility — February 22, 2010 @ 4:02 am

  4. […] […]

    Pingback by The Revolution of Food « Volatility — February 11, 2011 @ 3:13 am


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