February 03, 2009

"It's not the sex. It's never the sex."

I recently watched the four-episode BBC series, Cambridge Spies. It concerns the story well-known to most of us, at least in its broad outlines, of how and why four young men who perfectly embodied the British Establishment and the British ruling class chose to become spies for Soviet Russia. The series is very well-written and wonderfully acted; in addition to often being very provocative, it is variously entertaining, horrifying and immensely sad. (With regard to its entertainment value, a few scenes between Anthony Blunt and the Queen are riotously funny and worth the price of admission, or rental, all by themselves.) I may have further thoughts in the future about the broader questions raised by the series, including where one's loyalties lie in times of great historic crisis, and how one justifies particular choices. For the moment, I will only note that the portrait of many members of the British ruling class -- a portrait amply supported by much of what we know from the historic record -- is thoroughly repellent.

Here, I want to mention a brief but illuminating scene that occurs early in the first episode. I have no idea whether this incident is based in fact; whether it happened or is invented, it captures some important truths. In a conversation with a waiter in the dining hall, Guy Burgess learns that the university waiters suffer greatly because they are paid nothing at all during the periods they are laid off between terms. That (and, it is suggested, additional complaints about their working conditions) leads Burgess to engineer a waiters' strike. An especially awful fellow student -- a thoroughly "respectable" young British man, who loathes Jews and leftists with equal passion -- pays the waiter to whom Burgess had spoken to get Burgess into bed. By prearrangement, they are discovered having sex, and the waiter is immediately sacked. (The series accurately presents certain attitudes held by a distressingly large number of those who comprised the British ruling class at this time, including their anti-Semitism and admiration for Hitler. Such attitudes were common in America, as well. Moreover, the United States government functioned in critical ways that amounted to notably vicious anti-Semitism, particularly through its disgusting immigration quota system, a system that the sainted Roosevelt continued throughout the Nazi era.)

Burgess, of course, is not "sent down" for this indiscretion, but called to have a chat with a couple of university officials. These gentlemen only want to make certain that Burgess understands his obligations as a member of the ruling class and what is expected of him. They are entirely sympathetic to him. As one of the officials says: "You're one of us." Burgess is one of the "best people," to which Burgess angrily replies: "I think you mean the most privileged people." The official presses on, declaring that whatever Burgess calls it, it's right: "The right people are in charge, us."

Burgess is furious that the waiter has been sacked, for it was Burgess who organized the strike, not the waiter. With the perfect and imperturbable condescension of the ruling class, the official answers with more than a touch of annoyance: "Of course he didn't. He's a waiter." But the strike was an inconvenience, and it had to be ended. So the waiter had to be sacked. As for Burgess, he is "a member of the club," and membership is "for life." As noted by one of the officials, an elderly man who acknowledges that he is and always has been a homosexual: "The club makes allowances for the mistakes of its members." Even, as in his case, mistakes "that last a lifetime."

At the outset of this scene, Burgess thinks that the immediate problem is about what it appears to be about: that he was having sex with another man (who happened to be a waiter). It is his confusion that makes it necessary for the officials to state explicitly how the ruling class operates. As a first step in stripping Burgess of his charming illusions, the elderly official declares: "It's not the sex. It's never the sex."

Understand that, and you will understand the truth of many, if not most, of the charades that make up our public life and our politics at present. In the first instance, the waiters' strike was an inconvenience for the ruling class. Inconveniences of this kind are annoyingly unpleasant. They will be eliminated. Beyond this, there is a larger concern: if the strike were to continue, and if the waiters' complaints were to be treated with any degree of seriousness -- and, may the gods forbid, if their complaints were thought to be true and others came to think that the waiters might have justice on their side -- that would call into question the legitimacy of the current arrangement. The prerogatives of the ruling class might be seriously challenged.

Such questions and such challenges to the legitimacy and prerogatives of the ruling class must never be allowed. Whenever events threaten to run out of control in this way, action will be taken to ensure that the privileges and power of the ruling class continue without interruption. Whatever else may be open to question or challenge, the power, the privileges and the prerogatives of the ruling class may never be threatened in a serious way.

Today's example of this principle: Tom Daschle's withdrawal as nominee to head the Health and Human Services Department. We are told the withdrawal was necessary because of the continuing controversy about Daschle's unpaid taxes. It's not the taxes. It's never the taxes.

Do you seriously believe -- do you seriously believe -- that the tax issues that have crept into public awareness over the last several weeks represent anything close to the full story of the games played with taxes by members of the ruling class? We know, as just one example, albeit a major one, that many multibillion dollar companies pay no taxes at all. Is that an option for you, you little "ordinary" person? Of course it isn't. Do you doubt for one moment that, if we knew anything close to the full truth, many, perhaps most, members of government, both through election and by appointment, avoid taxes in a multiplicity of complex ways unknown and unavailable to "ordinary" people?

Following the scene from Cambridge Spies described above, there is a momentary eloquent visual touch that serves to underscore the truths about which Burgess and we have just been educated. The scene is set outside; we see a railing between a building's exterior and the sidewalk. A sign reads, "Please Do Not Lean Bicycles Against the Railings." Directly under and next to the sign, two bicycles are leaning against the railing.

The rules promulgated by the ruling class are not intended to constrain their behavior. They're intended to constrain yours, the behavior of those they rule. The ruling class will tell you repeatedly -- and most people will believe them -- that the rules are meant to apply to everyone, that "everyone is equal under the law." But that has never been true, and it will never be true:
[I]t is not enough to say, as I myself did, that "the State has always formed and will always form alliances with certain individuals and segments of society," although that is also true. The more accurate statement, and a formulation that delves more deeply, is that the State would never have taken form at all, and it would not have been able to impose its rule, but for the existence of a class or group of individuals that crafted the State to their particular ends. Here, I am not concerned with evaluating whether those ends are good or bad (except for the fact that one may believe that domination and exploitation are always bad, as I do), but rather with identifying the basis on which the State is founded.
This is also true of law in general:
The law is not some Platonic Form plucked from the skies by the Pure in Heart. Laws are written by men, men who have particular interests, particular constituencies, particular donors, and particular friends. (The same is now true of women as well, of course. But for most of our history, it was men and only men. Straight, white men, to be precise; see here and here.) Laws are the particular means by which the state implements and executes its vast powers. When an increasingly authoritarian state passes a certain critical point in its development, the law is no longer the protector of individual rights and individual liberty. The law becomes the weapon of the state itself -- to protect, not you, but the state from threats to its own powers. We passed that critical point some decades ago. The law is the means by which the state corrals its subjects, keeps them under control, and forbids them from acting in ways that the overlords might perceive as threatening. In brief, today, in these glorious United States, the law is not your friend.
With regard to these issues -- that is to say, with regard to every issue that matters in political terms -- the ruling class (or the elites) and the State are not different things: they are the same thing. As Christopher Layne observes: "Dominant elites do not hijack the state; they are the state." Rules, also known as "laws," are to control and direct the work and lives of those ruled by the elites. They are intentionally designed to protect the elites and to control everyone else. The elites may and will disregard them as they choose.

In exceptionally rare circumstances, a member of the ruling class may set aside the rules in a way that draws just a bit too much attention. As a result, all those "ordinary" people may become a trifle unruly; they might begin to wonder if the system is rigged against them in some basic way. Obviously, it is, but it would hardly do for the filthy masses to begin to grasp this central fact. In these situations, the ruling class will have to make some minor adjustments. It may not be enough to fire a waiter. A member of the ruling class might have to surrender one particular plum he had set his eyes on. This is not a matter of great significance for a member of the ruling class; there are many other plums waiting for him, including some of those plums he has enjoyed before. In all its essentials, his life of luxury, privilege and power will go on as before.

The ruling class will never open the door to anything that might seriously call into question its power and its prerogatives. Thus, you will never receive an honest answer to certain kinds of questions:
Meyer's first question, concerning Kerry's concession of the 2004 election on the day of the election itself, despite the fact that significant evidence of voter disenfranchisement and voting fraud was already known, was certainly an important one. Meyer forlornly asked Kerry at one point: "Didn't you want to be president?"

Although this is an undeniably critical question, I consider it to be a wasted, futile one, for one reason above all: neither Kerry nor any other leading politician will ever provide an honest answer. If Kerry were to be honest, he might say something like this: "Certainly I wanted to be president. But if I called into question the election results in any fundamental way, it would raise still more questions. It might make people wonder about the integrity of elections altogether. It make cause people to question the legitimacy of our system of government itself. We can't have that. Sure, Democrats and Republicans disagree about some issues of policy, and sometimes those are important. But we agree on the basics: a corporatist, authoritarian government at home, and American world hegemony abroad. That system has worked just fine for me, and for all my friends. Hell, I'm incredibly wealthy and powerful. So I don't get to be president. But I still have a life that 99.9% of you can only dream about, and I like that just fine. I'm not about to mess with the system that gives me all that."
People who are unable or unwilling to grasp the nature of the corporatist-authoritarian-militarist system that is slowly killing us (as it kills millions of people around the globe much more quickly and brutally) continue to hope for prosecutions of some of the major war criminals in the Bush administration. At this late date, such illusions are no longer charming, as Burgess's illusions about the ruling class were. They are astoundingly, staggeringly stupid.

There will never, ever be prosecutions of any major figure for war crimes. Never. The system will not tolerate any serious challenge to its power and prerogatives; it will certainly not tolerate a challenge that would inevitably and necessarily implicate Democrats as well as Republicans.

A system as deeply corrupt as ours is today will also necessarily corrupt all those who take part in it in any significant way. The system will grind up and finally destroy all those who may once have been decent and even honorable:
Conyers might have lost his prerogatives within the existing system. That possibility carried more weight than defending liberty, justice and fundamental human decency.

Thus, the lesson: when you choose to be a critical part of a system that has become this corrupt -- and the endless corruptions of our corporatist-authoritarian-militarist system have been documented at great length here and in other places -- you will not ameliorate or "save" it. The system will necessarily and inevitably corrupt you.
It's not the sex, or the taxes. It's not the criminal wars of aggression, or the torture. Certain of the ruling class's crimes are deeply evil, but that is of no moment or concern to the members of the elites. Other people may suffer unbearably or be murdered. The suffering and even the deaths of others barely trouble the ruling class at all. Their major concern, and very often their only concern, is that their own prerogatives, their own power, and their own lives of comfort and luxury unimaginable to most of those they rule continue without serious disruption.

It's not the sex. It's never the sex. Remember and understand that, and you will understand a great deal.