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(5,078 posts)
Mon Jun 13, 2016, 01:24 PM Jun 2016

The Big Picture: Wall St. is the Tsar of America

Almost 15 years ago, I wrote Kinder Gentler Apocalyptic Nationalism(KGAN), in which I argued that America's politics had devolved to exceptionalist tribalism.

one could argue that tribalism represents the wave of the future for a kinder, gentler totalitarianism in a celebrity-saturated, networked, globalized world where individuals are increasingly rootless and superfluous. A world into which America is leading the way.

In spite of Norman Rockwell-style homage to the rooted-ness of residents of small towns, America has always prided itself on its rootless-ness; but we called it "mobility". The majority of Americans' ancestors came to this country less than 150 years ago; and the migrations from farm to city, and then from city to suburbs, kept people in motion…The average American family moves every five years, oftentimes across country. Their ties to place, to relatives, to history are tenuous. Suburbia is a repetitive franchise ghetto.

That piece pointed out the similarity of KGAN to the Pan-Slavism of the late 19th century, as described by Hannah Arendt:

...the tribalism of the pan-movements (of the late 1800s) offered a new religious theory and a new concept of holiness. It was not the Czar's religious function and position in the Greek Church that led Russian Pan-Slavs to the affirmation of the Christian nature of the Russian people, of their being...'the Christopher among the nations' who carry God directly into the affairs of this world. It was because of claims to being 'the true divine people of modern times'...

The tribalism of the pan-movements with its concept of the 'divine origin' of one people owed part of its great appeal to its contempt for liberal individualism, the ideal of mankind, and the dignity of man. No human dignity is left if the individual owes his value only to the fact that he happens to be born a German or a Russian…

- H. Arendt, "Origins of Totalitarianism"

1. Where we are today

Fourteen years later, we have gone a long way down the road to KGAN. Wall Street (WS) is now the Tsar of America. It is an absolutist autocracy, a god-on-earth to which all must bow down and obey, just like the Slavs bowed to the Tsar. If the Tsar wrecks the finances of the country, the country must rescue it, because the Tsar is never wrong.

Just as the Tsar appointed and dismissed at will all of the high officials of Russia, today only politicians and bureaucrats vetted by and loyal to WS get appointed to critical positions in government. High-ranking officials, approved by WS are above the law. No one ever even came close to prosecuting Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, John Woo, or Alberto Gonzales. General Petreus got a slap on the wrist and a sinecure job at the JFK school of government (demonstrating the bipartisanship of loyalty to the Tsar). The investigation is still open on HRC's email and Clinton Foundation behaviors, but I predict another bipartisan acquittal. In another similarity to Tsarism, right-wing cretins (e.g., Gohmert) are tolerated or even encouraged for their loyalty to and heartless defense of a cruel system.

WS has always controlled our foreign policy (see any of the books by Steven Kinzer). That is why nominal Democrats continue to appoint GOP holdovers to run the Defense Department. Other politicians approved by Tsar Wall St. use economic sanctions and credit money created out of thin air - even as the country runs perennial, massive deficits - to operate an expansionist foreign policy that constantly gobbles up little countries on our periphery. If financial neocolonialism fails, Tsar Wall St. calls upon the military-intelligence complex to remove the obstacle to the greater glory and Messianic mission of WS. See Libya, Ukraine.

There are parallels to foreign policy exclusivity in Tsarist Russia. After the 1905 revolution, a parliament (Duma) was created. But it had no say in a foreign policy and soon, no power at all:

It was Witte himself who insisted on the exclusion of the Duma from the whole area of military and foreign affairs…It was not so much that (Emperor) Nicolas broke his word as that he qualified out of existence. It was a process which marched happily with the resurgence of Imperial confidence after the smashing of the Moscow rising and the success of the many punitive expeditions throughout the Empire.

- Edward Crankshaw, The Shadow of the Winter Palace

WS has used its financial control over both political parties to gut representative government in America. Thanks to designed-to-fail Third Way candidates, a corporatized propaganda media, and voter disenfranchisement, the GOP now control the majority of state governments in America. In those states, laws are literally written by ALEC, a political operation founded and nurtured by the Koch Brothers. Many of those states are basket cases, devolving to the peasant status desired by our oligarchs. At the Federal level, the legislative branch has been paralyzed by exceptionalist fanatics, causing power (especially military power) to accumulate in the Executive Branch and a rightwing-stacked judiciary. (BTW, neutering the legislative branch is straight out of the neoliberal playbook for transforming government.) Of course Tsar Wall St. has control over the executive.

2. How did we get to today?

2.1 Technology

The internet and its early adoption by the financial industry are the equivalent of the Industrial Revolution. The internet threw up a new elite of hedge-fund managers and internet billionaires whose "contribution" was often no more than a few thousand lines of code. But, code that promoted the privatization of government functions or the dissolution of inconvenient regulations (Uber) while centralizing control in private companies was well-worth such rewards. The unequal distribution of the profit from this government-nurtured technology aside, the technology itself increasingly destroyed the middle class by either replacing their jobs with machines or providing the communications equipment to outsource their jobs to India or China.

The result is the equivalent of the "clearances" of the Industrial Revolution, which turned farmers into farm laborers and sent the surplus population to the cities to be exploited as factory workers. In a short twenty years, the internet has turned the middle class into the "precariat". Meanwhile, the corporate media is praising the "job creators" in the Wall St. looting class.

2.2 Spying and secret warfare

The technology also enabled the increasing intrusiveness of state security, checking everyone's email and creating Kafka-esque situations like the no-fly list. And, like every other new technology, the Internet has set off an arms race. The Stuxnet worm was but the first bullet in what will inevitably become a barrage of net warfare that will shred economies which have been frog-marched into trashing the time-tested robustness of physical record-keeping and hands-on process control. Edward Snowden pulled back the curtain on the overweening ambition of America's spy agencies. Undoubtedly, the Russians and the Chinese have similar programs. The hubris of introducing millions of security holes in our commerce and manufacturing while ramping up offensive net warfare makes you question the sanity of our elites.

Another sea change begun in the Bush-Cheney regime has been the escalation of rightwing violence, both outside the government and inside it. Just as Tsarist Russia had been in the grip of random political assassinations by the left for thirty years, America has seen a rise of anti-government violence from the far right. (Witness the resurgence of militia movements upon Obama's victory.) But the right's actions are either downplayed or turned into free publicity for various rightwing causes (see the Malheur occupation).

Not so on the left. Despite there being no genuine leftwing movement espousing violence in today's America, it is supposed leftists who are constantly being warned against "supporting terrorism" (a charge that can result in a jail sentence or asset forfeiture for the most ephemeral connection). Until last year, this charade was only supported by a constant string of stupid patsies entrapped by FBI and DHS stings.

Not coincidentally, the Tsarist secret police were infamous for the use of agents provocateur:

It was the Socialist Revolutionaries' Combat Section which was in the years to come to be responsible for the long series of killings which astonished the world. And the most remarkable aspect of the whole bloody process was that for the greater part of the time the head of the Combat Section was the notorious Yevno Azev, who was also an agent of the secret police, the Okhrana. Azev managed to penetrate the S.R.s so deeply that he himself can hardly have known when he was acting as police agent, when as revolutionary. Time and time again he would plan the assassination of this or that official, only to warn his comrades of the police in time for them to pick up his comrades the conspirators.

- Edward Crankshaw, "The Shadow of the Winter Palace".

Of course, we now have the self-radicalized terrorist (i.e., bitter loser who decides to go out in a bang of violence, justified by whatever ideology comes to hand). Too bad we can't connect the dots that it was US actions that created ISIS and its extremely sophisticated media outreach. Too bad we can't connect the dots about our unbelievably lax attitude towards semi-automatic weapons. To even begin to connect those dots is to be labeled a conspiracy theorist or a gun grabber.

Still, it is hardly surprising that US foreign policy today is justifiably rife with accusations of false flags. The disclosure of one CIA plot after another, the complete farce of Iraq's WMDs, the use of NGOs to destabilize counties, the use of nasty intermediaries like the Saudis or Turkey to camouflage our role - all of this has made anyone who follows politics instantly skeptical of pin-the-blame-on-the-bad-guy media campaigns. Adding to the rightward tilt, Obama has been the biggest prosecutor of whistleblowers ever, using a dusty law from 1918. Silencing the whistleblowers is the perfect companion tactic to running a secret foreign policy.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, America is increasingly perceived as an out-of-control bully that uses drones to kill people in countries where America has no formal agreement to operate. Our NGOs have been kicked out of Russia and China, accused of funding destabilization campaigns. We continue to press for military solutions to all foreign policy problems, even as that pressure wrecks our economy, and destabilizes Europe with refugees. Even as the deliberately misapplied austerity "solution" to the recession of 2008 continues to destroy country after country, we stay the course.

3. Where we are headed.

The illusion of freedom will continue as long as it's profitable to continue the illusion. At the point where the illusion becomes too expensive to maintain, they will just take down the scenery, they will pull back the curtains, they will move the tables and chairs out of the way and you will see the brick wall at the back of the theater.

― Frank Zappa

Well, the American people can see the brick wall. Starting with Selection 2000, continuing through the forced use of easily-hacked e-voting, and ending up in the mass disenfranchisement and voter suppression on display for years, it has finally become clear to the vast majority of people that our so-called democracy is now a mug's game. Finally - eight years after the crash, seven years after Citizens United, and five years after Occupy Wall St. (OWS) - they are rebelling. Even if the Trump half of that rebellion is the kind of inchoate rage that I predicted:

A large segment of the U.S. population has lost touch with reality and have become willing participants in the orgy of apocalyptic nationalism. In a phrase, they have "gone tribal"…we are talking about a new tribe of powerless peons who lick their masters' boots and scheme their pathetic little get-rich-quick schemes, oblivious of the carnage inflicted in their name.

The new tribe of Americans should be called the Tribe of Kramden, after the famous, all-American loudmouth and idiot of the golden age of TV. We keep being told that the 1950s was America's best moment. Well then, Ralph Kramden must have been the exemplar that we most want to represent our tribe.

The Sanders campaign was the other half of the 2016 spontaneous revolution from below. No one saw it coming, but conditions made it inevitable. Both the left and the right see the brick wall.

3.1 One more similarity to Tsarist Russia

I ask your forbearance with my extended Tsarist Russia analogy. America today is like Russia in about 1910. I would liken the period from the crash of 2008 through the OWS protests against it, and their complete shutdown as an extended, non-violent equivalent to the Russian revolution of 1905. Yes, that revolution failed, but at a cost ultimately fatal to the Tsarist government when World War 1 put immense stress on a rotten system that everyone had given up on.

OWS, and especially the caging of protestors on the bridge to Brooklyn, bear a striking, but non-murderous, resemblance to a major event in the 1905 revolution - Black Sunday. Black Sunday was a peaceful demonstration to present a petition to the Tsar at the Winter Palace, organized by a priest, Father Gapon, whose organization was (typically) approved and funded by the secret police.

Most of the demonstrators lacked even an inkling of an idea of the inflammatory nature of their pleas: they thought they were prostrating themselves before the Tsar and begging him for his protection…(Gapon) knew his march was illegal, but officialdom and the police had had every opportunity to warn against it and had not done so. On January 8 Gapon himself informed the Government of the nature, time, and route of the proposed march. And nothing happened…

There were to be five columns of marchers…the authorities knew their routes…No attempt was made to break up the columns and divert them early in their march. The troops were so disposed that they would come into collision with the marchers only when each column was nearing the Palace Square…As they marched, the city police actually cleared the way for them and held up traffic, while onlookers made the sign of the cross and bowed as the icons went by…It was not until the columns were within sight of their goal…that they found their way barred by cordons of troops and police. They were ordered to stop…but came on, even when the order to fire was given - not over the heads of the crowd but into it...

In this way, a peaceful demonstration was transformed into the first act of a revolution. For (Emperor) Nicolas now began to lose his magic for that mass of simple-minded workers who were not caught up in the revolutionary movement but simply looked to the Tsar for succor. A monarch cannot allow his personal guards to shoot down in droves in front of his own house an unarmed assembly of working men, to say nothing of harmless onlookers, and continue to be revered as the source of all wisdom and kindness.

- Edward Crankshaw, "The Shadow of the Winter Palace".

For a history buff like me, it is a wonderful bit of deja vu that OWS was kettled and smashed literally in front of Wall St. Of course, in the 20th century, first world democracies learned not to shoot peaceful demonstrators because it is bad publicity.

4. In closing

Just as Tsarist Russia was a dead man walking in 1910, today's Wall St-run US is also. OWS, coming on the heels of the infamous bailouts and lack of prosecutions for WS, was a moment where many people lost faith in the governing paradigm of ruthless capitalism. It was when the terms like "the 1%" and "too big to fail" became common currency, even if nothing was done about the problem. Nevertheless, the ruling neoliberal order was shored up by Obama, and continues to drive our country into debt servitude, environmental destruction, and military expansionism. Like Tsarist Russia, the establishment of this country is simply too large and too powerful to be diverted by mere retail politics or demonstrations. Like Tsarist Russia, it will continue to bulldoze its way along the well-worn path of oligarchic looting until, eventually, the wheels come off.

But we aren't there yet. It will probably take either another four years of political chaos - guaranteed no matter whether Clinton or Trump is "elected" - to screw up the country and the planet badly enough to bring an end to the neoliberal autocracy's grip on the country and the planet. OTOH, it looks like another economic crash is in the cards. Such a crash, on top of the un-repaired destruction from the 2008 crash and the increasing weakness of our economy, could become a WW1-level event. Finally, both candidates have a propensity for military solutions and could simply bring the planet to an end with nuclear war.

In any case, it is events, big events, which will determine the future, not corrupt, deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic, electoral politics. With this post, I personally walk away from "mainstream" politics in America. It is a bought-and-paid-for joke. A consolidated corporate media. Two political establishments awash in Citizens United legalized bribery. Dynastic politics in a democracy. Corrosive tribalism in the form of "identity politics". I'm with Chris Hedges, if you want to accomplish anything real, you will have to do it by demonstrating in the streets. I will vote, knowing full well that

If voting made any difference they wouldn't let us do it.

― Mark Twain

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