January 18, 2009

The Necessary Violence of the Murderous National Bully

I want to explore here some themes that are interconnected in very complex ways. It took me several years to appreciate these interconnections, so I do not expect them to be readily apparent to others. I continue to discern further aspects and ramifications of these ideas, and they are also related to certain mechanisms I will discuss when I explore the nature of tribalism in politics.

I'm prompted to offer these thoughts in part because of the monstrous devastation visited on Gaza by Israel. In considering Israel's ghastly recent actions, it is critical always to keep in the forefront of one's mind that Israel brought widescale death and destruction upon a captive population -- that Israel slaughtered many innocent people in precisely the way cattle are slaughtered. Now, while Israel's military remains in Gaza, Israel announces that it will abide by a ceasefire. Please note that this ceasefire takes effect after "after 22 days of war that killed more than 1,200 Palestinians and 13 Israelis." Even when confronted by such a devastatingly awful death toll (and if "disproportionate" ever had any meaning, it most certainly does here), many people are proclaiming that Israel "lost" insofar as longer term goals of peace and security are concerned -- see, as just two examples, here and here. Because they believe Israel "lost," they are unable to understand Israel's motives in pursuing this course.

This view is absolutely wrong, in at least two critical ways. First, on the practical level (or speaking "pragmatically," as our incoming president might say), Israel pursued its murderous course for several weeks -- and no one at all did anything of consequence to try to stop the murder. To the contrary, Israel's strongest ally, the United States, offered enthusiastic support for these crimes, most notably in the form of almost unanimous and unqualified support from the U.S. Congress. As I've said before, this is far from surprising, since the United States government has a long history of crimes of this kind, and currently continues a crime of historic proportions in Iraq. It is to their mutual benefit for criminals of this kind to applaud each other's bloody work.

Throughout the continuing scenes of dismembered bodies, corpses of bloody children and all the nightmarish further details, Obama maintained his loathsome silence, and broke it only to express a generalized "concern" with the great suffering being endured. Obama also claimed he would have "plenty to say" about Gaza once he is inaugurated. However, as I recently discussed, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that his policy toward Israel will differ in any significant way from that of previous administrations. In fact, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that his policy will be virtually identical.

I will credit Israel for exceptionally clever timing, in the same manner I would credit a very skilled murderer for knowing how to eradicate clues to his identity. Israel says it will now stop the murder, just as Obama is about to become president. In this manner, Israel generously allows Obama to avoid having to take a stand as president about these recent events, and to indicate whether he would have stopped the massacre if he had been president as it was occurring. But the general dynamics remain unchanged. When Israel again decides to ramp up the terror -- and it will, the only question is when -- the blame will once again fall on the "terrorists" who provoked Israel, in the same manner that the U.S. government is always very careful to make every act of its own aggression the fault of the other party. And the slaughter of the innocent will commence once more.

To think that Israel "lost" reveals a significant failure to understand the operations of the State, and of a particular kind of State. Just as the U.S. drive to American global hegemony means that the U.S. government intends to have its way no matter what, Israel intends to have its way within the smaller territory which it claims for its own dominance. From this perspective, it can be seen that the exercise of power in the manner just demonstrated by Israel is not a strategy toward a further end: the exercise of power is the end. Terrorizing an entire captive population, making large numbers of people (including many entirely innocent people) believe they have no choice but to obey, and visiting destruction and death upon them if they do not do exactly as they are told -- all of that is the purpose. To summarize this point, which applies to the governments of both the United States and Israel:
The fundamental lesson is unmistakable, and unmistakably evil in intent and execution (a word made horribly appropriate in more than one sense by our government's actions): you will do exactly as we say -- or else.
Israel did all this -- and no one stopped it. When Israel does it again, it is almost certain that no one, certainly not the U.S. government, will stop it then, either. That, I submit, is precisely what victory looks like.

Here is another connection. From "Lies in the Service of Evil," and the full essay discusses this in great detail:
The crucial point is Foucault's. Let me rephrase it as follows, in connection with torture specifically.

Torture does not work. Its use permanently damages all those who are tortured, and those who administer the violence. Its "lawful" use profoundly undermines the broader society and democratic institutions in ways that are irreparable. But its persistent, ineradicable failure is entirely irrelevant for those who seek to consolidate and expand state power. Moreover, its inherent failure underscores their aim: it does not work, everyone knows it does not work, but the state does it because it can.
There is a second way in which the belief that Israel "lost" is profoundly wrong, and it concerns a particular kind of narrative: the narrative of national founding and identity. Since all States are founded upon and rely on force and coercion (for much more on this subject, see this essay), all States must periodically remind their subject-citizens of the meaning of State power, and of the fact that when the State targets you, there is precious little you have to offer by way of defense. Within this general principle, a narrower principle may also be identified: one particular kind of State is especially prone to fits of aggression, just as any bully is driven to demonstrate regularly that you (and anyone else) cross the bully at your own peril. The psychology of the bully is one that lies at the core of the American national identity, to the extent such a phenomenon can be identified. I discussed these issues at length in two essays in particular: "Bullied, Terrorized and Targeted for Destruction: Our Children Have Learned Well," and "Let the Victims Speak."

What is true of America in this respect is also true of Israel, for their national narratives and their histories contain striking similarities. Chris Floyd recently described this as follows:
[W]hat we have been witnessing in Palestine over the past several decades is a remarkable echo of the dispossession and destruction of the Native American nations by the United States. There are myriad differences, of course, but the broad outline is basically the same: a people denigrated as primitive and inferior are being stripped of their land, driven into poverty and desperation, and killed in large numbers by another people who believe that their "manifest destiny" and moral superiority justify violent conquest and repression. Any violent resistance to the conquest is treated as barbaric terrorism -- and another justification for yet more repression, for even harsher tactics to grind down the conquered, secure "the frontier" and make it safe for "settlers" and the "civilization" they bring.

One reason that Israel persists in its harsh policies of decimation and destruction against the Palestinians is that such methods very often work: you can dispossess another people, destroy all but an ineffective remnant of their society and colonize their land to your own lasting profit and advantage. And you can do it in such a thoroughgoing manner that there will be no realistic possibility of the conquered people ever rising again to take back what was theirs. This is the example that the United States has set for Israel. It is unlikely to work in the same way or with the same degree of success for Israel in 21st century, for a number of reasons. In fact, it can -- and probably will -- end in disaster. But it is not an irrational policy; it does have many successful historical precedents -- including the history of Israel's chief benefactor.
And in "Why Most People Won't Fight," I discussed Uri Avnery's analysis of the same point:
Avnery discusses the profound similarities to be found in the national narratives of the United States and of Israel: how "Israel is a small America, the USA is a huge Israel"; how the "Mayflower passengers, much as the Zionists of the first and second aliya (immigration wave), fled from Europe, carrying in their hearts a messianic vision, either religious or utopian"; how "Both suffered a great deal in their new country. Both saw themselves as 'pioneers' who made the wilderness bloom, a 'people without land in a land without people.' Both completely ignored the rights of the indigenous people, whom they considered subhuman savages and murderers. Both saw the natural resistance of the local peoples as evidence of their innately murderous character, which justified even the worst atrocities." And then Avnery writes:
How is it that a man like Obama, the son of an African father, identifies so completely with the actions of former generations of American whites? It shows again the power of a myth to become rooted in the consciousness of a person, so that he identifies 100 percent with the imagined national narrative. To this may be added the unconscious urge to belong to the victors, if possible.

Therefore, I do not accept without reservation the speculation: "Well, he must talk like this in order to get elected. Once in the White House, he will return to himself."

I am not so sure about that. It may well turn out that these things have a surprisingly strong hold on his mental world.
These are very important insights. That Obama "identifies so completely with the actions of former generations of American whites" folds into my current series, "The Triumph of the White, Male Ruling Class" -- a class to which Obama belongs fully and completely in every way that matters, philosophically, politically, and ideologically. Avnery provides yet another aspect of Obama's identification with the white, male rulers of America, the rulers who have held almost all power from the founding of this nation (and before) through and including today -- and into tomorrow. And Avnery's observations about the power of myth track completely with my writings about that power, and about the power of narrative. As but one example, see "Why the Stories We Tell Matter So Much."
For the argument here, the crucial aspect of these very similar national narratives and histories is this: the founding and development of both America and Israel required the large-scale, even genocidal, destruction of indigenous peoples. To further that destruction, and to provide moral "justification," the indigenous peoples first had to be condemned and demonized. And because force and violence are necessary to the continuation of the State, such demonization must continue into the future, especially since additional acts of destruction will be necessary for the maintenance and consolidation of State power.

When I was reflecting on these matters, I initially thought that part of the reason America and Israel are both driven to acts of destruction that appear to be "irrational" (but, I emphasize, only from an outside perspective which disregards the inner dynamics at work, just as it disregards the extent to which such policies do, in fact, work) was that the political leaders of those nations appreciate in some manner the great evil committed by their governments, evil which they continue in the present day. This is a well-known psychological mechanism: whether one acts for good or evil, after an initial act has been undertaken, one is often compelled to offer further justifications for what one has done. Very frequently, one is driven to acts that are more and more extreme, all to justify the correctness of one's course.

I then realized that this explanation, while it may be true in the individual case, cannot be known with any certainty. In many instances, it may also pay certain people a compliment they do not deserve: that they are, in fact, able to appreciate the nature of their own actions. In any case, I now think this explanation is unnecessary, for there is a much simpler reason for the actions of America and Israel, two reasons actually.

The first reason lies in the nature of a State centrally founded on conquest and violence in the way that is true of America and Israel. Setting aside moral questions and whether the murder of innocent people can ever be justified -- and I realize it is abhorrent to set aside such issues, but we must recognize that such matters rarely concern American politicians or those of any other nation, despite their frequent protestations to the contrary -- reliance on the conquest of victims who are inevitably furiously angry and resentful, and who will seek retribution whenever the opportunity presents itself, is necessarily uncertain and undependable. If your rule depends on the compliance and obedience of those over whom you hold sway in such circumstances, you will necessarily have to remind the subject-citizens of the price of disobedience from time to time. One result is that scapegoats will regularly have to be found: first they will be identified, then they will be demonized, and finally they will be punished, even eliminated as required. From this perspective, violence, even death on a horrifyingly large scale, and the power of the State are not different phenomena: they are two aspects of the same phenomenon. Violence is the State. Power is not the means to another end: it is the end.

The second reason concerns what constitutes "national interests," those of the United States, Israel, or any other nation. Just as many people contend they cannot understand what propelled Israel's recent actions, disregarding the arguments offered above, so many people say that it is not in the "national interests" of America to offer unquestioning support to Israel in the way it does. This rather badly misses the point of what those "national interests" are, and who determines what they are. Those "national interests" have nothing at all to do with you, or me, or with "ordinary" Americans. The "national interests" of the United States as a political entity concern only the ruling class, as discussed in detail here, here and in many other essays linked therein.

And so I return once more to Robert Higgs' formulation. There is another aspect to "national interest" which is analyzed here, but it is critical to appreciate the following. Robert Higgs:
As a general rule for understanding public policies, I insist that there are no persistent "failed" policies. Policies that do not achieve their desired outcomes for the actual powers-that-be are quickly changed. If you want to know why the U.S. policies have been what they have been for the past sixty years, you need only comply with that invaluable rule of inquiry in politics: follow the money.

When you do so, I believe you will find U.S. policies in the Middle East to have been wildly successful, so successful that the gains they have produced for the movers and shakers in the petrochemical, financial, and weapons industries (which is approximately to say, for those who have the greatest influence in determining U.S. foreign policies) must surely be counted in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

So U.S. soldiers get killed, so Palestinians get insulted, robbed, and confined to a set of squalid concentration areas, so the "peace process" never gets far from square one, etc., etc. – none of this makes the policies failures; these things are all surface froth, costs not borne by the policy makers themselves but by the cannon-fodder masses, the bovine taxpayers at large, and foreigners who count for nothing.
The ruling class has not "lost," not in Gaza, not in Iraq, not in most of the other many wars of aggression throughout history. To claim that they have is to misapprehend what their interests are, and how those interests are fulfilled. The prospect or, very infrequently, the actuality of large scale public unrest and protest may cause the ruling class to make concessions now and then, concessions specifically designed to ensure future compliance. But except for extraordinarily rare moments of profound historical shift, the ruling class continues in its enjoyment of untold wealth and power, all of which is fed with the blood and suffering of the "ordinary" people.

It may be that the rot now consuming more and more of the United States economy will circumscribe the U.S. ruling class's determination to dominate the globe. At present, however, there is no sign whatsoever that our ruling class is considering even the smallest degree of humility. To the contrary, Obama's proclamations that "the American moment" should extend for "this new century" lead to precisely the opposite conclusion. I would not be at all surprised if this theme is included in Obama's inaugural address in some form.

For the United States, as for Israel, violence, subjugation and death were indispensable to their founding and development, as they are indispensable to their continuance. We may desperately wish that it were otherwise, but these horrors will not end in the near future. To whatever extent we can, that is the goal demanded by decency, humanity and a genuine reverence for life toward which we must continue to work.