Sunday, January 18, 2004

The End of Politics:
Corporate Power and the Decline of the Public Sphere
(Guilford, 2000)
by Carl Boggs

Masters of War:
Militarism and Blowback in the Era of American Empire
(Routledge, 2003)
Edited by Carl Boggs

"The broadest measure of a depoliticized society ... is the overall decline of civic consciousness. A civic culture (understood in the broadest sense) requires extensive processes of interaction in the public sphere, a sense of community, general citizen access to decision making, and social obligation, but historical trends in the United States have worked inexorably against such a culture. In its place has emerged a phenomenon quite different, an ethos of extreme individualism, consumerism, and parochialism that devalues not only politics but any form of civic involvement."

When I first read The End of Politics in 2001, I found it to be the most eloquent assessment of one of the most obvious systemic dilemmas we currently face in American politics: a popular detestation of politics. I've since been surprised by how few of my friends and colleagues (generally more politically active and astute than the average) have read this tremendous book. That only proves Boggs' point.

Still, if I were to recommend one book to people about how to understand the general political culture in America (not the culture of those who are political professionals, but of this country as a whole), this would be a strong contender.

Boggs writes in the tradition of the best of American political sociology. Like C. Wright Mills, he strives for an accessible and convincing synthesis. And it is his ability to write clearly and engagingly throughout this rigorous and far-ranging assessment of the depoliticization of American culture and its sources in corporate power that makes Boggs' book much stronger, for instance, than Bowling Alone, the bestseller that makes some of the same points.

The sources of this detachment appear almost irreversible. They include the marketing of consumer-based values, the location of solutions to common problems in personal habits instead of systemic design (hence the rise of self-help "movements" and the location of answers to the ecological crisis in consumer choice instead of a collective push to democratize fundamental technological decision-making -- considered the inviolable prerogative of corporate managers), the spread of technologies like computers (blogging can isolate people in their own cynicism as much as Meetup style organizing on the Internet can quickly connect them) and the general corrosion of civic values and political thinking.

Our deep detachment from politics has resulted in the fetishization of individual personalities as a substitute for candidacies that bring an analysis accountable in any significant way to a movement-building process; private forms of alienation (drugs, alcohol, and their obverse in self-centered recovery programs); "vague planetary (or interplanetary) conspiracies," and spontaneous outbursts of collective action (e.g. Seattle) that have the potential to be misinterpreted as evidence of mature developments in movement-building. [Allow me to pause here and explain: although Seattle catalyzed some of that "Teamsters and Turtles" optimism and a convergence of different movements against a common target -- a rare phenomenon for the U.S. Left -- it's also true that the "summit-hopping" since then, particularly among Americans who apart from the World Bank bonds boycott have made little little permanent connection between the World Bank/IMF protests and mainstream culture ("IMF riots" have been going on in countries like Indonesia and Argentina for decades) though the protests were a huge leap forward, and it would be a mistake to read the catharsis of such mass-protests as a sign of mature movement-building -- though there is much potential for global synergies). As long as most people see mainstream political activism as corrupt and futile, rather than as a viable means of collective action (how much has voter participation increased since Seattle?), they will cede most everday important decisions to corporate interests, and protests like Seattle will be a momentary surge. That's largely because the central issue in the Seattle WTO protest is rarely so centrally addressed: corporate power.]

Indeed, "nothing has undermined the public sector or eviscerated political discourse more than [the] process of corporate colonization," Boggs writes. "The issue of corporate power, manifest today in every area of social life, has never been placed on the public agenda, owing not only to the vast power of corporations but surely also to the profound cynicism among so many people convinced that the political game is rigged in favor of the dominant interests."

Corporations foster a mood of antipolitics by dominating the two major parties through the vast machinery of campaign finance and lobbying, eviscerating their engagement with real issues (by, for example, sanitizing the Presidential debates), controlling the mass media (e.g. keeping popular opinions against war or corporate ownership of the media itself from being aired over the people's own airwaves), and fostering a sense of futility in the face of economic globalization and the rise of remote and unaccountable centers of corporate power, such as the WTO.

Meanwhile, social life is increasingly atomized outside the confines of the corporation (inside, the hierarchies are virtually totalitarian, despite superficial and unconvincing suggestions to the contrary such as Wal-Mart's use of "team member" to describe a low-paid employee).

Of course, the extreme individualism that has resulted from American consumerist culture was always a strand in the country's liberal tradition. But corporate conservatives have stripped it of any connection to an ethos of civic action for the collective good.

In exploring all of this Boggs avoids offering any easy answers, instead adopting a healthy pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will, as suggested by his intellectual mentor the Italian political philosopher Gramsci. It may be true that there may be no easy answers, but I wish Boggs had suggested how a significant challenge to corporate power and the colonization of our politics might take form -- beyond simple platitudes about public funding of elections and other campaign finance reforms.

For example, Jason Mark and Kevin Danaher of Global Exchange suggest some interesting ideas in their new book: Insurrection: Citizen Challenges to Corporate Power. The Multinational Monitor also has explored this issue in a couple of recent issues and other groups like POCLAD and Reclaim Democracy offer a analysis that points to a more fundamental conceptual framework for challenging corporate power.

We can regain a faith in civic action -- the notion of government as a legitimate vehicle for asserting our collective will -- only when we see it as a means of asserting our right as a sovereign people to govern over corporations, which we should view as potentially worse tyrannies than governments. People already see HMOs as a bigger threat than the HHS. And they should. But they want to know what they can do. Poll after poll taken even before Enron revealed people already believe corporations have too much power. The challenge we face is an organizing challenge -- giving that impetus constructive form (the alternative, as Boggs also suggests, is misdirected rage).

There is a serious debate about all this among a growing network of activists, many of whom believe it would be activist malpractice to offer corporate reforms such as changes in internal governance as a serious organizing objective. Shareholder activism has done much to challenge CEO pay and other abuses (I believe that's largely because wealthy outside stockholders' interests are aligned with those of the reformers here). But if we think the political game is rigged, the notion of "shareholder democracy" should be laughable on its face: a Democracy is defined by one-person/one-vote, not by proportional representation based on ownership, which of course is corporate plutocracy. And since corporate laws defined the maximization of shareholder value as the obligation of corporate officers and directors, having proxy access to nominate pension fund reps, unionists, environmentalists, or whoever to a corporate board won't make much difference until the duties and obligations of corporate officers are changed -- because even those directors who wish to do the right thing often can't, a phenomenon described by Ralph Estes as the Tyranny of the Bottom Line. A new initiative that has sprouted in California and Minnesota -- the Code for Corporate Responsibility attempts to address this question of the duties of officers and directors as defined by state corporate laws. Those duties could be redefined to reflect a broader set of interests (including the protection of jobs, the environment, etc.) and redefined in a way that challenges deeply-embedded corporate doctrines that shield ruthless corporate behavior, such as doctrine of limited liability.Other fledgling efforts to challenge corporate power have been moving from theory to action, including California's Corporate 3 Strikes campaign, which would require the state to revoke a company's charter (or business license if they are incorporated out-of-state) for recidivist or criminogenic behavior were also initiated even before Enron.

Meanwhile, POCLAD, CELDF and other groups are educating activits in strategies that would challenge illegitimate corporate claims to Constitutional Rights and the doctrine of corporate personhood (by which courts have conferred the rights of the people to nonliving fictional entities -- show me where corporations are mentioned in the Constitution or Bill of Rights).

All of these efforts point in a direction that suggests possible ways to challenge corporate power in a significant way. None of them have a significant organizing constituency, though interest is growing.

Thus our challenge is politicize our culture in a way that is tied to an effort to reassert our authority over corporations as a collective citizenry. (The fight against the media monopoly -- supported by both the left and right -- may be a hopeful sign of how this new populism could take shape. That fight has yet to figure out a way to use some of these other ideas).

The point is that the legitimacy of a corporation's existence is not merely as a contract between private parties, but as a public institution whose legitimacy is granted by the People, through our government (corporate charters and the process of incorporation are a rote bureaucratic process, but this wasn't always so. In our nation's early history, corporate charters were given a limited life, and had to be renewed by state legislatures, which used to regularly review a company's operations before the charters were renewed. See this piece in Multinational Monitor for more.)

Getting to the point where we demand this kind of thing means a fundamental shift in our understanding. We must view ourselves as citizens rather than consumers -- which is the point of Boggs' book. The colonization of our thinking by corporations is not just measured by the number of brands we can recognize, but by our own alienation from our own government.

After four years, it's easy to see a few things that Boggs got wrong -- largely due to the consequences of unpredictable events like the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Bush administration's response. For example, he groups the neo-conservatives with others -- identity groups, new-agers and the 1960s counterculture (including the New Left) and others who retreated from politics. Now we know better. And few would probably agree today with his Nader-like assertion that "the real ideological gulf separating Republicans and Democrats had narrowed beyond recognition," though that certainly seemed obvious at the end of 8 years of Clinton, who moved the Dems further towards the Republicans than any Democratic president before him (e.g. by keeping the minimum wage down to $5.15 during a period of unparalleled growth and prosperity, passing welfare "reform", escalating the ruthless war on drugs, putting 100,000 more police on the streets, pushing for NAFTA, etc.)

Yet despite the radical nature of Bush's agenda, in the long run Boggs' description of the convergence of the two parties may be more true than we want to believe (accepting this as fact means many intelligent people will further detach from politics, especially if they hold out the hope that the nomination of a Democrat could turn much of this around) -- and will lead to deeper cynicism and despair, as well as more marginal experimentation on the fringes, at least for some time, until such efforts can connect with mainstream America.

Unfortunately, it will be hard to discuss these questions until after the election. The hijacking of the Republican party by the neocons and the possible rise of a non-DLC candidate like Dean, along with new forms of organizing like has made the 2004 choice between the two parties potentially the most significant in a generation, and there are signs of a significant lift in new voter participation (though it's hard to imagine Move On is activating a large percentage of people that didn't vote before). The palpable fear of the consequences of another four years of Bush will probably activate many Democrats and liberals who have been pretty apolitical in the past, but the organizing ability of the Right should also not be underestimated (in terms of mobilizing their own base).

Underneath all this, the same political currents are continuously flowing:

"The erosion of civic values is no momentary phase but is rather the product of deep material and cultural forces at work since at least the 1950s. Vital elements of the political enterprise -- participation, community, governance -- have been distorted or obliterated bypostwar depoliticizing trends."

Which makes me want to suggest (heresy?) that this political season's battles may be less important than we'd like to believe, unless we're ready to begin to analyze those currents and address them. Perhaps we could close the gap by using a Dean (or whoever) victory as an opening, or, in the nightmarish event that Bush wins, building a more fundamental resistance from the ground up that can do more than put up modest speedbumps against Bush's next imperial adventure and ruthless domestic policies.

The point is that, apart from minor flaws in his argument discussed above (and below), after 4 years much of Boggs' analysis seems as apt and urgent as ever; sometimes it seems downright prescient. For example, at one point he contrasts a political culture that pays more attention to the president's sexual pecadillos with deep regulatory reforms that no one seems to be paying attention to, such as energy deregulation, which is certain to have much greater consequence for the majority of Americans (this was written before Enron, the California crisis, last summer's blackouts, the Cheney task force and the debacle known as the Energy bill, which has a clause that would further deregulate the industry by totally gutting the Public Utilities Holding Company Act, the New Deal era-law that kept companies from jeopardizing essential services through speculation in unrelated businesses).

The downward spiral of public life cannot be measured simply in terms of passivity and cynicism. As Boggs observes, "there is also the phenonomenon of sustained citizen anger -- an anger that is deep-seated, increasingly overt, sometimes directed against hated or feared "others," most commonly focused on "government" but rarely channeled in the direction of the military-industrial complex or "private" corporations." ... "Strong antigovernment feelings, of course, can be a prelude to mobilization for radical change--but only where such feelings take shape in a milieu of widely shared values of public engagement and collective action."

Which brings up another point: Without general engagement and education around the question of the dangers of unaccountable corporate power, we should be suspicious of the direction that rapidly-developing mass movements can take.

In 2000 Boggs wrote, "striking parallels between the present-day American extreme Right and European fascism of the 1920s and 1930s clearly exist and deserve further analysis." But he dismisses the possibility of fascist totalitarianism taking over the U.S. government. Yet I wonder, if Boggs was given a chance to rewrite this book now -- after 9/11 and resulting mass psychological fear, the emergence of the neocon cabal, Iraq and other signs like Nuremberg-style rallies sponsored by Clear Channel (and all the other stuff Harvey Wasserman wrote in his book) -- would he have made a stronger case for the potential for an emerging American fascism?

Perhaps he would agree with Sheldon Wolin that we live in a kind of "inverted totalitarianism" (Wolin: "while the current sysem and its operatives share with Nazism the aspiration toward unlimited power and aggressive expansionism [but] their methods and actions seem upside down. For example, in Weimar Germany, before the Nazis took power, the "streets" were dominated by totalitarian-oriented gangs of toughs, and whatever there was of democracy was confined to the government. In the United States, however, it is the streets where democracy is most alive -- while the real danger lies with an increasinly unbridled government.")

In 2000, however, Boggs' skepticism was based upon his identification of the potential for American fascism in fringe groups like the scattered militias, cults and fundamenlists -- groups that are "undoubtedly a long way from seizing state power. ... There is probably no Mussolini, Hitler, or Franco on the horizon. Yet the ideological affinity of such groups with earlier incarnations of fascism and neofascism, along with certain undeniable similarities in the historical context, cannot be overlooked."

There may not be any charismatic dictator in the wings, or any threat that these militia-like groups will ever come into power, politically, but does it make any difference if, instead, they align themselves with other right political movements like the neoconservatives. It's easy to imagine them functioning in a manner similar way as the brownshirts -- as a radical base that the right can call upon to intimidate dissent, especially if their energy is fed by escalating economic despair and their consequent rage is directed at "liberals" who don't support the country's war on terrorism. As Boggs puts it:

"The fascist party-state set out to either destroy or incorporate autonomous groups and subcultures, albeit with mixed results. The state assumed primacy ... in most cases (Italy, Germany, Spain) the party actually wound up subordinated to the state system. As Mussolini once stated: "Everything for the state, nothing against the state, no one outside the state. Although such monolithic rule always remained outside the grasp, and probably the intentions, of fascist regimes, Mussolini's dictat nonetheless reflects the essence of fascist ideology. The very genius of fascist leadership in Europe resided in its capacity to forge a coherent social bloc of forces among widely dispersed and often conflicting groups..." When two parties converge into one government dominated by the military-industrial complex how far can it be from moving towards becoming this kind of system, especially if hijacked by an ideological cabal?

Another reason Boggs was skeptical that fascism could happen here is that "present-day reactionary populist groups lack a coherent, future-directed ideology that could give political shape to their vast assortment of antistatist beliefs and irrational fantasies."

Again, I'm not sure that matters, so long as the right has people like Ralph Reed or Grover Norquist (described by Bob Dreyfuss as the "Field Marshall of the Bush Plan") who has a multi-decade ideological plan to use the anti-political sentiments of most Americans to push a plutocratic economic agenda.

Grover is building a grassroots base ("little me's") state-by-state. In a recent Washington Post article("Sewing the Seeds of GOP Domination," 1/12/04), he said his group (the supposedly "center-right" Americans For Tax Reform, which has pushed the paradoxical anti-big-government line for tax cuts for the rich, never talking about the military, which is far and away the fastest-growing part of the budget) had to shut down one of its "mini-Grover" state coalition meetings in New Mexico, after the "black helicopter crowd" took it over. A sign of what I mean -- Norquist and other political operatives are creating legitimate political space for dangerous right-wing political movements.

Boggs' last reason to be skeptical that fascism could happen here reads like a dire omen to this pessimist: "Finally, fascist movements and parties were able to seize state power in Europe because large sectors of the power structure -- the aristocracy, the Catholic Church, big business, the military -- swung over to the fascist side at decisive moments. ... In the United States today, however, there are few signs of such a critical alignment: corporations, Wall Street, the Pentagon, and the bulk of the political estalishment are all lined up resolutely against the extreme Right, particularly where destabilizing forms of insurgency or domestic terrorism enter the picture."

So much has happened since 9/11, hasn't it? Many foreign policy establishment figures voiced opposition to the Iraq war once it was announced, including Admiral Zinni, Schwarzkopf (remember the article that came out the morning of last year's State-of-the-Union speech, where he criticized the proposal to go to war? Then he was the first responder on TV, suggesting how great Bush's speech was. A Rove set-up? Or did they manage to turn him that quickly?) and many other members of the intelligence and foreign policy establishment. Yet we live in a time when even the inertia of a foreign policy establishment reluctant to go to war for unwarranted reasons can succumb to an atmosphere of fear, party discipline and reprisal, especially if popular sentiments are pushed along by right-wing propaganda such as Clear Channel radio, and the Democratic party is so compromised that it can rarely pull together long enough to take a stand before the ground shifts (why did it take an ex-Klan member to make the most eloquent case against war on the floor of the Senate? Where was Kerry?). It's hard to stop something like war once the gears are set in motion. Yes, it could easily happen here -- and the conditions for it to happen may already be in place.

But Boggs makes a good point: it isn't coming in the same form, so that if we can be critical of people like Christopher Hitchens for calling stateless terrorist networks like al Qaeda "fascistic," so could using the F-word be an imprecise term for what's happening here:

"Surely corporate colonization in the early twenty-first century America will depend far more on the workings of ideological hegemony than on the tools of institutional coercion or terror. If the "new world order" means anything, it refers to an administered system in which popular consciousness is shaped and contained by the media spectacle, the culture industry, the shopping malls, and the charade of democratic politics -- all inducing privatized retreat, depoliticization, and withdrawal from the public sphere, against a backdrop of reinforced state-corporate networks of surveillance and controls. (Fascism, on the other hand, always set out to mobilize the masses, hoping to instill new modes of active participation- however narros these turned out to be.) In such a rationalized, high-tech, globalized universe there seems to be little role for a Mussolini, Hitler or Franco; instead of charismatic passions and adventurous schemes, what the system requires is more the routinized managerial intervention of market-oriented CEOs who reside at places like IBM, Bank of America, Mitsubishi, General Motors, and Walt Disney/ABC. Hence, the menacing incursions of reactionary populist groups in the Unied States represent not so much the harbinger of a coming fascist nighmare as the localized, defensive, antipolitical, and ultimately impotent response to globalizing forces that seem outside the purview of active human control."

All of this would make it interesting to find out how Boggs' thinking has evolved since 2000.

You can find out by reading his new collection of essays about a related topic that suggests how far he believes the situation has evolved: Empire.

In fact, apart from Boggs' Masters of War: Militarism and Blowback in the Era of American Empire there are a number of recent books that pick up on the theme of Empire, including Chalmers Johnson's Sorrows of Empire and Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire has probably stirred up the most debate on the topic, including assertions that the faddish use of the E-word is as unpersuasive and imprecise a description of modern global capitalism as use of the word "globalization" was in recent years. (There are many more books on the American Empire: 267 if you search "U.S. Empire" as Title on; 1467 titles include "globalization." So it will probably be a few years before the intellectual fetish for understanding Empire exhausts itself).

This fetish is shared by writers across the spectrum. On the right, we have Max Boot's pro-imperial editorials in the Wall Street Journal and books like Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order and Zbiegnew Brzezinski's The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives.

Any progressive/radical bibliography on the question of American Empire would have to include books such as William Blum's Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II and Sidney Lens' The Forging of the American Empire: From the Revolution to Vietnam, a History of U.S. Imperialism, both which were recently reissued. Also Larry Everest's Oil, Power and Empire: Iraq and the U.S. Global Agenda and Peter Gowan's The Global Gamble: Washington's Faustian Bid for World Dominance (Verso).

Regardless of one's views, unchallenged American global dominance in military, political and (to a lesser extent) economic arenas is a certainty, and even if "Empire" conjures up difficult-to-swallow notions of legions of soldiers conquering distant lands (Johnson points out that we have over 700 mmilitary bases on foreign soil) there is certainly some truth in framing an understanding of U.S. politics around this question, particularly if we are willing to engage the question as a complex one. E.g. It would also be a mistake to understand the concept of American Empire as simply a military-industrial agenda completed by force. Much of what is understood to be the central process of globalization could also be considered to be part of the process of Empire. E.g., as Michael Hudson's Super Imperialism: The Origin and Fundamentals of U.S. World Dominance explores, U.S. foreign policy has worked through surrogate institutions and in partnership with capitalist allies -- hence -- a view of the history of financial diplomacy that formed, sustained and used the Bretton Woods triad (World Bank-IMF-GATT/WTO) as an instrument of global imperialism.

Boggs' book -- which includes essay by Chalmers Johnson and Noam Chomsky -- attempts to grapple with some of the more obvious variables involved with this question of Empire. As a collection of different essays by a variety of writers, it pulls the evidence together from different directions. The chapters on the evolution of the domination of space (where the technology has evolved from observatory spy satellites to being part of an aggressively-postured, integrated global battlefield), oil wars, "The Geopolitics of Plan Columbia" (James Petras), the role of media in wartime (Norman Solomon) and the depoliticization of the public sphere (Boggs, again) present important evidence of the direction we're headed, even if they are only part of a grim picture.

In Masters of War, he has this to say about Wesley Clark, referring to the 1999 war in Yugoslavia: "NATO Commander Wesley Clark boasted that te aim of the war was to "demolish, destroy, devastate, degrade, and ultimately eliminate the essential infrastructure" of Yugoslavia. As Takis ftopoulos has persuasively argued, the NATO destruction of Servia can best be understood as the first war systematically waged in defense of the global market system, a "war" involving few if any casualties for the perpetrators. Do you want a guy like that heading a country that has developed an aggressive and preemptive military posture not just through Bush's most recent National Security Doctrine, but by the inherent nature of the technologies it is developing? If you're enamored with Clark, as Michael Moore seems to be, check out "Clark's True Colors," the Nation, December 15, 2003)