Let’s start by getting a few things out of the way. I think the birthers are nuts, and the “death panel” nonsense is just that–nonsense on stilts. I’ve got no use at all for the Palin/Joe the Plumber/teabagger wing of the GOP. I’m alarmed by said wing’s tendencies toward brownshirtism (as chronicled by David Neiwert among others), and the astroturf mobs organized by insurance industry stooges like Dick Armey and Rick Scott to disrupt town hall meetings. And as strongly as I believe in the right to keep and bear arms, I think anyone who shows up at a public appearance by the President packing heat is probably missing some attic insulation.
All that being said, Keith Olbermann has really gone over the top with his sanctimonious attacks on “conspiracy theorists” and people who “actually fear their own government.” I get the impression he wouldn’t think much more of Noam Chomsky’s view of the world, or Howard Zinn’s, than he does of the right-wingers’. Olbmermann’s view of the world doesn’t have much room for anything but plain old vanilla-flavored managerial liberalism.
I suppose if you broke down Olbermann’s view of the question for analysis, it would probably go something like this: Sure, horrible things happened under Bush and his minions, but they were aberrations. They did not result from the inherent nature of government, and anyone who suggests otherwise is a nutcase. The solution is simply to put the right people in control of government, so government can perform its default function as a progressive instrument for “all of us working together.” In soccer mom parlance, the good guys, the “working families who sit around the kitchen table,” are also the people who “play by the rules.” And “the rules,” a la “Why Mommy is a Democrat,” are just the sensible way that “all of us, working together,” come up with to make the system work in “everybody’s interest” with a minimum of muss and fuss.
But if you look at the actual history of the state, the “right people” were apparently never in charge. As I pointed out in an earlier commentary piece at C4SS, “The Democrats: Fake Party of Compassion,” the Democrats have fully lived up to Nader’s characterization of them: just the “liberal” head of the two-headed corporate party.
All the so-called “progressive” regulatory and welfare state policies created under the “Good Presidents” were made pursuant to government’s function as (if you’ll pardon the phrase) executive committee of the corporate capitalist ruling class. The stability of corporate capitalism, the need for predictable profits and stable markets, the need to counteract destabilizing tendencies toward overinvestment and underconsumption, have always been front and center in the consciousness of policymaking elites. That was the theme of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Progressive” regulatory state, as recounted by Gabriel Kolko, and of FDR’s New Deal as described by G.William Domhoff.
The Social Democratic or New Deal wing of those policymaking elites, in particular, have paid more attention to avoiding destabilizing polarization of wealth and income, and maintaining high levels of employment.
But the key economic policymaking roles, in Democratic administrations as well as Republican, have been held by corporate executives, corporate lawyers, and investment bankers. Ever hear of Bob Rubin or Tim Geithner? Yeah, a real bunch of fire-eating anticapitalists we got there. That’s one reason I hold such contempt for “Joe the Plumber” and his screaming ignoramuses: anyone who can seriously look at Obama’s economic team and its policies, and suspect him of being a closet “Marxist,” probably shouldn’t be allowed to use scissors without adult supervision.
Don’t get me wrong. If my only choices are between two kinds of statism, I’ll take the one that weighs less heavily on my own neck. If my only choices are between a German-style SocDem regime and the kind of right-to-work sweatshop that Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff set up in the Marianas Islands, I’ll take the former in a heartbeat.
But both models are run primarily in the interests of big business. To repeat an old illustration I never tire of trotting out, the Democrats are like a farmer who thinks it’s more profitable in the long run to feed and house his livestock decently and work them in moderation, while the Republicans are like a farmer who thinks he’ll come out ahead working them to death and replacing them. If you’re going to be a plowhorse, it’s better to be owned by a Democrat–but they both clearly think of us as their livestock. Me, I’d rather the farm be run by the animals (minus the pigs, of course).
My main objection to “conspiracy theorists,” of the Schlafly/Smoot/Bircher type, is the weakness of their explanatory framework. To someone in Hofstadter’s “paranoid style of American politics,” all the nefarious acts of those running the state are motivated by personal cliques and ideological cabals: the Illuminati, Obama’s secret Marxism or Islamism, the lizard people, the Royals vs. the Vatican, the Rothschilds and Rockefellers, etc.
In reality, most of the horrible things government does don’t require a conspiracy, or secret meetings at the Nazi Saucer Base inside the Hollow Earth, invoking Adam Weisshaupt and the eye in the pyramid. They follow of necessity from the institutional and class structures into which our world is organized.
To be sure, contra Olbermann, there have been conspiracies; they are, in fact, fairly common. Hitler used SS provocateurs, in Polish uniforms, to harass ethnic Germans in Danzig and create a pretext for war (and anyone who doesn’t think American mainstream journalists would have reported the official story as straight news, in the same situation, must not have followed CNN coverage of the incident between Russia and Georgia last August).
If the people who accuse FDR of “foreknowledge” of Pearl Harbor have overreached themselves, there is nevertheless a preponderance of evidence that he was trying to goad the Japanese into firing the first shot and providing a pretext for war, and that his primary motivation was to secure American corporate control of the resources and markets disappearing into the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. It was his intention to initiate war with Japan, if necessary, if the Empire took over the oilfields of the Dutch East Indies.
Since then, we’ve had a CIA-engineered coup in Saigon to replace Diem with someone who would acquiesce to an American invasion of South Vietnam, and a fake “incident” in the Gulf of Tonkin to provide the pretext for such an invasion. We’ve had Bush I encouraging Kuwaiti slanted drilling on the Iraqi border, April Glaspie’s assurances to Saddam that the U.S. took no interest in inter-Arab conflicts, and official lies about Kuwaiti incubator babies and massed Iraqi armor on the Saudi border. We’ve had massaged intelligence under Bush II to lie the country into another war with Iraq, clearly motivated by a “Great Game” with Russia for strategic control of the Persian Gulf and Caspian oil basins.
If anything, the centralized, bureaucratic structure of the corporate state promotes conspiracies as a side-effect. When three or four county commissioners meet informally at a barbecue in violation of FOI laws, and discuss using county equipment to pave the county executive’s private access road, it doesn’t take a crazy “conspiracy theorist” to believe it happens. Considering the tightness of the good ol’ boy networks that control most local governments, it’s almost remarkable when it doesn’t happen. Likewise, when society is controlled by a few hundred oligopoly corporations, a bunch of centralized government agencies, and a dozen giant media corporations, all united in an interlocking directorate with the same few thousand people shuffling constantly back and forth in a revolving door of leadership–well, of course conspiracies happen.
But the remarkable thing is just how unnecessary conspiracies are: they’re just icing on the cake. The crimes of the corporate state, over the past century or so, have been overwhelmingly carried out, not by Snidely Whiplashes chortling with glee and twirling their moustaches, but by bureaucratic functionaries acting in sincere good faith that their policies were objectively required for the “public good.” Such people spend their entire careers dutifully shuffling papers from their in-box to their out-box, ordering the deaths of millions in the process, without ever suspecting that what’s good for GM really might not be good for America. A world dominated by a few hundred corporations wedded to the centralized state is the only, natural, and inevitable way of doing things. And any kind of “radicalism” that offers an alternative to that natural way of doing things must be nipped in the bud.
Most of the great evils carried out by the American state over the past century would have been carried out by such people without any conspiracies, with absolutely no guilt or shame, in full confidence that it was warranted by the objective requirements of the situation in light of their duties to the “common good.”
But make no mistake: the kind of world maintained and run by these “little Eichmanns” is, indeed, evil. Mass-murder has been very much a bipartisan policy of the American state.
It’s almost comical to see retired CIA officers appearing as pet liberals on Olbermann and Maddow, solemnly reassuring viewers that the CIA absolutely never did things like waterboarding before 9-11, because it was “clearly illegal.” Good God, have you people never heard of Philip Fucking Agee?!! Maybe people with official GS ratings and paychecks from Langley never directly pulled any fingernails, true enough. But God knows enough fingernails were pulled and enough people waterboarded by monsters put in power by the CIA, or trained by the Green Berets or School of the Americas.
There are the hundreds of thousands killed by Suharto (the Jarkarta station chief helpfully compiled a roundup list for the Indonesian military) and by Mobutu. And the reason: the sensible realists in American policy circles, with no malice aforethought, considered a rational world order managed by giant corporations to be in the general interest for long-term prosperity. A world in which the giant corporations had to buy oil on terms set by Sukarno, or copper and uranium on terms set by Lumumba, was simply unthinkable to them.
In Guatemala, the sensible realists found it similarly intolerable for Arbenz to give the land to its rightful owners to the detriment of UFC. Since he was overthrown in 1953, hundreds of thousands of people have been massacred by military governments and death squads in Guatemala alone. In Central America as a whole, the death toll from death squads fighting to protect the region’s landed oligarchs extends into the millions. The entire continent of South America, in the 1960s and 1970s, was swept by a series of CIA-assisted military coups (just Google “Kissinger” and “Operation Condor”). The CIA may (or may not) have assisted with the torture, but God alone knows how many people were mutilated, murdered and disappeared in basement dungeons run by people the CIA put in power.
You want ample ground to “fear your own government”? All you have to do is Google “Palmer Raids,” “COINTELPRO,” “McCarran Internal Security Act,” or “Garden Plot.” Or read up on the history of federal strikebreaking in the Pullman Strike, the copper wars and coal wars, and even under–yes, gasp, him–good ol’ liberal Harry Truman.