This essay strikes me as deeply explanatory for the absurd political events that have been taking place in the US in the past year – from trillion-dollar bank bailouts, to the inability to create any meaningful health care reform, to the absolute mocking of the world’s attempts to deal with the catastrophe of climate change – the US government seems to have completely given up on pretending to represent the American public and aligned itself with huge financial and corporate interests, right out in the open.

Those of us with a radical understanding of power know this government has always served the interests of the powerful as its primary mission. But in the past, the politicians at least paid lip service to the public interest in order to save face. This was the era of “hegemony”, roughly meaning the consent of the ruled to their domination.

The public was being screwed, but somehow it was ideologically prepared to believe that “we, the people” had the ultimate say. This was supposed to be a democracy, after all. Sure, the police, prison system, military, and federal enforcement agencies would step in if things got out of hand, but much more effective at keeping the system intact was the “cop in our heads”. As long as we truly believed that it was all for our own good, the corporations just rolled right along, plundering the planet and destroying our communities. And the media made sure we believed it. That’s hegemony.

The reign of George W. Bush really started the break from this paradigm, as we saw for example the outright defiance of the US Constitution and US law when it came to imprisonment of political enemies, justifying torture, spying on millions of American citizens’ phone calls, excessive lying in order to invade and occupy strategic countries, etc etc.  At first the public somewhat accepted these moves as “necessary” in the face of terrorism, but Bush’s popularity waned terribly in his second term as people became more informed of what was really happening. In this light Obama’s rhetoric about “change” seems to have initially served to reinvigorate the system with a revived hegemony – to give the US a new image, one of tolerance, diplomacy, and the rule of law.

But the first year of Obama has already shattered these illusions. Obama and his Democrats now appear totally befuddled, their strategy (of putting a smiling face and a few meaningless reforms on a fundamentally broken system) lies in rubble. And a resurgent, perhaps racist, Right appears ready to sweep back into control by playing with the public’s justified resentment and frustration of a continually deteriorating situation.

In this context Jeff Strabone asks us if hegemony is becoming a thing of the past: “Will the state shamelessly turn itself completely over to serving the interests of a powerful few without bothering to pretend that it’s not?”

I’ve written in my synopsis about the end of capitalism and the possible emergence of neo-fascism, a militarization of society in order to preserve the interests of the powerful, regardless of the environmental and social costs. It seems to me that one indicator of this possible paradigm shift is the increasing shamelessness of the elites. In market-driven capitalism, image is crucial. If a corporation gets bad publicity, they stand to lose money in the stock market. This is one of the few areas of capitalism that is open to democratic intervention. Another area where the public can occasionally intervene is through electing progressive representatives into office.

But it’s these avenues that appear to be closing to us now. Goldman Sachs, Exxon-Mobil, and Blackwater have all gotten terrible publicity in the past few years for their theivery, pollution and murder; but their stocks have never soared higher. Then the public gave Obama and the Democrats an enormous mandate to “change” the country, only to see them cave immediately on almost every campaign promise. The bank bailouts, torturing, and bombing of civilians have, if anything, increased in Obama’s tenure thus far. Perhaps the final insult was the Supreme Court’s decision last week that corporations are “people” with a First Amendment “right to speak” by directly buying politicians. Have they no shame? Apparently not.

So if the consent of the governed is no longer sought, and we’re truly moving into a post-hegemonic era, what can we do to make sure that the breakdown of the capitalist system leads to something better, and not far worse? As Mr. Strabone proclaims, it’s time for civil disobedience. The system has failed us, we must cut off our allegiance from it, confront the powers that be, and start envisioning and constructing the world we want to see replace capitalism. I, for one, wish to see that world based on shared values of democracy, justice, sustainability, freedom and love, and I urge all of you to consider the alternative. [alex]

Post-Shame: Time for Civil Disobedience

by Jeff Strabone

Originally published by Daily Kos.

Tue Jan 26, 2010

One of the duties of the modern nation-state is persuasion. Each state aims to keep its citizens convinced of the legitimacy of its rule. The state may be run chiefly for the enrichment of a few at the cost of the many, but the endurance of the state is widely thought to depend on its ability to sell its rule to the many as a common-sense truism. Or at least that was how it used to work. We may be entering a new era in the evolution of the state, one where the state approaches a state of utter shamelessness.

Antonio Gramsci, in his prison notebooks, called this persuasive activity ‘hegemony’. According to Gramsci, hegemony occludes the domination of the state and the classes whose interests it serves. One does not have to be an Italian communist of the 1920s to see the usefulness of Gramsci’s groundbreaking insight. Broadly speaking, all political actors pursue their agendas by trying to narrow other people’s imaginations in order to make desired outcomes seem common-sensical and undesired outcomes outside the ambit of reasonable thought.

It seems to me that over the past decade, in the United States, the state and a narrow circle of powerful interests—banks, energy companies, and private health insurers in particular—have simply given up trying to persuade the rest of us that their interests were our interests. Could we be moving in the twenty-first century to a state that practices domination without hegemony? Or, to put it in plain English, will the state shamelessly turn itself completely over to serving the interests of a powerful few without bothering to pretend that it’s not? And if it does, how should we respond?

I am not the only one asking these questions. A recent book by Eva Cherniavsky of the University of Washington has helped me gather my own thoughts about this ongoing development. In chapter two of her book Incorporations: Race, Nation, and the Body Politics of Capital (2006), Cherniavsky, drawing on Gramsci, suggests that the United States is experiencing ‘a return of sorts to a premodern state formation, characterized by the external imposition of force’, a condition that she likens to colonial rule, where the rulers don’t care about the consent of the many. Consider how closely Cherniavsky hits the mark in light of Bush and Cheney’s no-bid contracts given out in Iraq, the impossibility of considering single-payer health insurance under Obama, the unlikelihood of legislation designed to slow global warming, and the government’s inability to regulate Wall Street under Clinton, Bush, or Obama:

At issue, then, in the state’s contemporary practices is not only the disregard for something approximating the welfare of ‘the people’ (a regard that has always been partial and uneven at best, overwritten by the imperatives of property) but also a dwindling concern with the crafting of a perceived public interest that the state can claim to secure. The dubious fate of hegemony as a form of power is legible both in the exacerbated promotion of elite interests and (what does not necessarily follow) in the increasingly overt display of the state’s mercenary dedication to those interests.

Dubious fate of hegemony indeed. No one in government or on Wall Street is even trying to sell us on the legitimacy of the financial sector’s wholesale robbery of the rest of us. The New York Times for January 21 reported the following, not as part of a crime blotter but in its business section:

Despite the first annual loss in its 74-year history, Morgan Stanley earmarked 62 cents of every dollar of revenue for compensation, an astonishing figure, even by the gilded standards of Wall Street. In all, the bank set aside $14.4 billion for salaries and bonuses.

This from a bank bailed out by the state.

J.M. Coetzee treats the shamelessness of the state in the U.S. and Australia in his 2007 novel Diary of a Bad Year (2007). Señor C, the novel’s protagonist, imagines a politically charged performance that gives new meaning to the term ‘Theatre of Cruelty’:

Someone should put together a ballet under the title Guantanamo, Guantanamo! A corps of prisoners, their ankles shackled together, thick felt mittens on their hands, muffs over their ears, black hoods over their heads, do the dances of the persecuted and desperate. Around them, guards in olive-green uniforms prance with demonic energy and glee, cattle prods and billy-clubs at the ready. They touch the prisoners with the prods and the prisoners leap; they wrestle prisoners to the ground and shove the clubs up their anuses and the prisoners go into spasms. In a corner, a man on stilts in a Donald Rumsfeld mask alternately writes at his lectern and dances ecstatic little jigs.

One day it will be done, though not by me. It may even be a hit in London and Berlin and New York. It will have absolutely no effect on the people it targets, who could not care less what ballet audiences think of them.

I confess to being excited by the prospect of such a ballet as I read the first paragraph. When I reached the end of the second, I knew how right Señor C was and how delusional the admonition to ‘Speak truth to power’ really is: when power is exercised shamelessly, it has no need for truth.

Similarly-themed art in the real world fares no better than Coetzee’s imaginary Guantánamo ballet even when it works, as Jenny Holzer’s Redaction Paintings series shows. Amazon’s product description of the catalogue is spot-on yet cannot help but sound like a satire of the New York art world:

This elegant clothbound monograph gathers the most recent work by the seminal language-based installation artist, Jenny Holzer. Presented to great acclaim at New York’s Cheim & Read gallery this past summer, the work consists of enlarged, colorized silkscreen “paintings” of declassified and oftentimes heavily censored American military and intelligence documents that have recently been made available to the public through the Freedom of Information Act. Beautiful in their own right, the works are also haunting reminders of what really goes on behind the scenes in the American military/political power system. Documents address counter-terrorism, prisoner abuse, and even the threat of Osama Bin Laden. Some of the documents are almost completely inked out, like Colin Powell’s memo on Defense Intelligence Agency reorganization. Others are spotty enough to allow readers to try to fill in the blanks. As Roberta Smith wrote in the New York Times, these are ‘the hardest-hitting, least hypothetical texts of Holzer’s career.’

I deeply admired these works when I saw them at Cheim & Reid in Chelsea in 2006 and again at the Whitney in 2009, but I do not know what depressed me more: being reminded of the shameless deeds of the Bush era or feeling the political powerlessness of politically powerful art.

Torture, of course, is nothing new. The United States has been implicated in torture before, most famously in Central America in the 1980s. See, for instance, the article on torture in Honduras by James LeMoyne in the New York Times Magazine for June 5, 1988. But until recently, torture was always part of covert operations. The people who ordered the operations felt they had something to hide. What torture and corporate kleptocracy have in common in the twenty-first century is the lack of shame that characterizes the responsible parties.

What happens when the state and the most powerful corporate interests forgo any illusion? I think we’re about to find out. The truth is that there is no necessary narrative outcome. People may get depressed, shrug in apathy, or start a revolution. One thing I will predict with confidence is that the shamelessness will endure. It is our response that is in question.

Last week’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission confirms that shamelessness is on the march. The decision was a shameless unleashing of further shamelessness: by a majority of five to four, the justices ruled that there can be no limits on the amount of money that corporations spend trying to influence the outcomes of local and national elections. The majority reached this decision by finding that corporate money is somehow a form of speech protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. I note for the record that no other country in the world treats it as such.

The Court was wrong in perpetuating the lie that corporations are individuals for the simple reason that corporations are incapable of feeling shame. There is an automaticness to what modern corporations do. If competitors are engaging in high-risk, (temporarily) high-reward activities, then they must do the same in order to remain competitive. That is the inexorable logic of capitalism, especially as practiced by corporations whose directors are unaccountable to the shareholder-owners.

So what are we to do in the face of such shameless grabbing and wielding of state and corporate power? The first thing is to see the problem clearly. There can be no more appeals to power to do what is right in the name of reason or decency or morality. Let no one say, as so many do today, that Wall Street ‘doesn’t get it’ or that the coal industry ‘doesn’t get it’. People who say that the powerful don’t get it are the ones who don’t get it. Wall Street does what it does because it cannot behave otherwise. We are the ones who must change.

Although the logic of corporate capitalism is inexorable, our story is not. Recent actions (and inactions) by President Obama have left me confused as to his convictions and his abilities. But if—and it can seem like a mighty big if these days—the state can still be put to work for the betterment of the many, rather than just the few at the expense of the many, it won’t happen because the guy in the White House is well-intentioned or not. It may happen if progressives become as entrepreneurially ruthless as the forces arrayed against them.

That means not counting on sixty—oops, fifty-nine—Democratic U.S. Senators to pass a watered-down health care reform bill that will drive millions more people to buy insurance from the same corporations who cheat us now. If a majority of the national legislature is no longer sufficient to pass legislation, if winning elections no longer means anything, if corporations are going to rob shareholders and taxpayers alike and then spend billions more to influence elections, then it’s time to rethink tactics. It may require civil disobedience on a mass scale to stop business as usual. Why is it that people who lose their jobs sometimes return to shoot their bosses and co-workers, yet people sentenced to die by insurance companies don’t even picket corporate headquarters? (No, I am not advocating shooting.) You can’t win a war if you don’t show up to fight, and that goes for class war as well.

We will all need to think further about how to achieve change when politics no longer works, if in fact that is the impasse we have reached. But, when the powerful become so powerful that they no longer need to care what anyone else thinks of their exercises of power, the first step is to put shame aside, see the situation for what it is, and think of what other tactics are available. If the powerful can take our acquiescence so deeply for granted, then we need to figure out how to make them afraid of the restive masses once again. Here then is the answer to the question implicitly posed at the beginning: when shame no longer works, the next step is fear.

Here are my four suggestions so far for tactics for punching back against the big banks and other assorted bad guys:

  1. Shareholder activism, as I have outlined elsewhere.
  1. The Move Your Money campaign.
  1. Lobbying local government to do as New York is doing: moving $25 million (preferably more) in public funds to local credit unions.
  1. Civil disobedience, particularly directed at the offices of the largest banks and health insurance companies.

Power does not respond to truth, but it may respond to fear.