PDF version of Section D.
Under capitalism, political power tends to become concentrated in the executive branch of government, along with a corresponding decline in the effectiveness of parliamentary institutions. As Kropotkin discussed in his account of “Representative Government,” parliaments grew out of the struggle of capitalists against the power of centralised monarchies during the early modern period. This meant that the function of parliaments was to check and control the exercise of executive power when it was controlled by another class (namely the aristocracy and landlords). The role of Parliaments flourished and reached the peak of their prestige in the struggle against the monarchy and immediately afterwards.
With the end of absolute monarchy, legislatures become battlegrounds of contending parties, divided by divergent class and group interests. This reduces their capacity for positive action, particularly when struggle outside parliament is pressurising representatives to take some interest in public concerns. The ruling class also needs a strong centralised state that can protect its interests internally and externally and which can ignore both popular demands and the vested interests of specific sections of the dominant economic and social elites in order to pursue policies required to keep the system as a whole going. This means that there will be a tendency for Parliaments to give up its prerogatives, building up a centralised and uncontrolled authority in the form of an empowered executive against which, ironically, it had fought against at its birth.
This process can be seen clearly in the history of the United States. Since World War II, power has become centralised in the hands of the president to such an extent that some scholars now refer to an “imperial presidency,” following Arthur Schlesinger’s 1973 book of that title. In the UK, Prime Minister Tony Blair has been repeatedly criticised for his “presidential” form of government, while Parliament has been repeatedly side-tracked. This builds on tendencies which flow back to, at least, the Thatcher government which started the neo-liberal transformation of the UK with its associated rise in inequality, social polarisation and increases in state centralisation and authority.
Contemporary US presidents’ appropriation of congressional authority, especially in matters relating to national security, has paralleled the rise of the United States as the world’s strongest and most imperialistic military power. In the increasingly dangerous and interdependent world of the 20th century, the perceived need for a leader who can act quickly and decisively, without possibly disastrous obstruction by Congress, has provided an impetus for ever greater concentration of power in the White House. This concentration has taken place in both foreign and domestic policy, but it has been catalysed above all by a series of foreign policy decisions in which modern US presidents have seized the most vital of all government powers, the power to make war. For example, President Truman decided to commit troops in Korea without prior congressional approval while the Eisenhower Administration established a system of pacts and treaties with nations all over the globe, making it difficult for Congress to limit the President’s deployment of troops according to the requirements of treaty obligations and national security, both of which were left to presidential judgement. The CIA, a secretive agency accountable to Congress only after the fact, was made the primary instrument of US intervention in the internal affairs of other nations for national security reasons. This process of executive control over war reached a peak post-911, with Bush’s nonsense of a “pre-emptive” war and public acknowledgement of a long standing US policy that the Commander-in-Chief was authorised to take “defensive” war measures without congressional approval or UN authorisation.
And as they have continued to commit troops to war without congressional authorisation or genuine public debate, the President’s unilateral policy-making has spilled over into domestic affairs as well. Most obviously, thanks to Bush I and Clinton, important economic treaties (like GATT and NAFTA) can be rammed through Congress as “fast-track” legislation, which limits the time allowed for debate and forbids amendments. Thanks to Jimmy Carter, who reformed the Senior Executive Service to give the White House more control over career bureaucrats, and Ronald Reagan, who politicised the upper levels of the executive branch to an unprecedented degree, presidents can now pack government with their spoilsmen and reward partisan bureaucrats (the lack of response by FEMA during the Katrina hurricane is an example of this). Thanks to the first Bush, presidents now have a powerful new technique to enhance presidential prerogatives and erode the intent of Congress even further — namely, signing laws while announcing that they will not obey them. Fifth, thanks also to Bush, yet another new instrument of arbitrary presidential power has been created: the “tsar,” a presidential appointee with vague, sweeping charges that overlap with or supersede the powers of department heads. [Michael Lind, “The Case for Congressional Power: the Out-of-Control Presidency,” The New Republic, Aug. 14, 1995]
Thus we find administrations bypassing or weakening official government agencies or institutions to implement policies that are not officially permitted. In the US, the Reagan Administration’s Iran-Contra affair is an example. During that episode the National Security Council, an arm of the executive branch, secretly funded the Contras, a mercenary counter-revolutionary force in Central America, in direct violation of the Boland Amendment which Congress had passed for the specific purpose of prohibiting such funding. Then there is the weakening of government agencies to the point where they can no longer effectively carry out their mandate. Reagan’s tenure in the White House again provides a number of examples. The Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, was for all practical purposes neutralised when employees dedicated to genuine environmental protection were removed and replaced with people loyal to corporate polluters. Such detours around the law are deliberate policy tools that allow presidents to exercise much more actual power than they appear to have on paper. Finally, the President’s authority to determine foreign and domestic policy through National Security Directives that are kept secret from Congress and the American people. Such NSDs cover a virtually unlimited field of actions, shaping policy that may be radically different from what is stated publicly by the White House and involving such matters as interference with First Amendment rights, initiation of activities that could lead to war, escalation of military conflicts, and even the commitment of billions of dollars in loan guarantees — all without congressional approval or even knowledge.
President Clinton’s use of an Executive Order to bail out Mexico from its debt crisis after Congress failed to appropriate the money falls right into the authoritarian tradition of running the country by fiat, a process which accelerated with his successor George Bush (in keeping with the general tendencies of Republican administrations in particular). The second Bush took this disdain for democracy and the law even further. His administration has tried to roll back numerous basic liberties and rights as well. He has sought to strip people accused of crimes of rights that date as far back as the Magna Carta in Anglo-American jurisprudence: elimination of presumption of innocence, keeping suspects in indefinite imprisonment, ending trial by impartial jury, restricting access to lawyers and knowledge of evidence and charges against the accused. He has regularly stated when signing legislation that he will assert the right to ignore those parts of laws with which he disagrees. His administration has adopted policies which have ignored the Geneva Convention (labelled as “quaint”) and publicly tolerated torture of suspects and prisoners of war. That this underlying authoritarianism of politicians is often belied by their words should go without saying (an obvious fact, somehow missed by the mainstream media, which made satire redundant in the case the second Bush).
Not that this centralisation of powers has bothered the representatives whom are being disempowered by it. Quite the reverse. This is unsurprising, for under a leader which “guarantees ‘order’ — that is to say internal exploitation and external expansion — than the parliament submits to all his caprices and arms him with ever new powers . . . That is understandable: all government has tendency to become personal since that is its origin and its essence . . . it will always search for the man on whom it can unload the cares of government and to whom in turn it will submit. As long as we confide to a small group all the economic, political, military, financial and industrial prerogatives with which we arm them today, this small group will necessarily be inclined . . . to submit to a single chief.” [Kropotkin, Op. Cit., p. 128] As such, there are institutional forces at work within the government organisational structure which encourage these tendencies and as long as they find favour with business interests they will not be challenged.
This is a key factor, of course. If increased authoritarianism and concentration of decision making were actually harming the interests of the economically dominant elite then more concern would be expressed about them in what passes for public discourse. However, the reduction of democratic processes fits in well with the neo-liberal agenda (and, indeed, this agenda dependent on it). As Chomsky notes, “democracy reduces to empty form” when the votes of the general public votes no impact or role in determining economic and social development. In other words, “neoliberal reforms are antithetical to promotion of democracy. They are not designed to shrink the state, as often asserted, but to strengthen state institutions to serve even more than before the needs of the substantial people.” This has seen “extensive gerrymandering to prevent competition for seats in the House, the most democratic of government institutions and therefore the most worrisome,” while congress has been “geared to implementing the pro-business policies” and the White House has been reconstructed into top-down systems, in a similar way to that of a corporation (“In structure, the political counterpart to a corporation is a totalitarian state.”) [Op. Cit., p. 218, p. 237 and p. 238]
The aim is to exclude the general politic from civil society, creating Locke’s system of rule by property owners only. As one expert (and critic) on Locke argues in his scheme, the “labouring class, being without estate, are subject to, but not full members of civil society” and the “right to rule (more accurately, the right to control any government) is given to men of estate only.” The working class will be in but not part of civil society in the same way that they are in but not part of a company. The labouring class may do the actual work in a capitalist firm, but they “cannot take part in the operation of the company at the same level as the owners.” Thus the ideal (classical) “liberal” state is a “joint-stock company of owners whose majority decision binds not only themselves but also their employees.” [C. B. MacPherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, p. 248, p. 249 and p. 251] The aim of significant sections of the right and the ruling class is to achieve this goal within the context of a nominally democratic state which, on paper, allows significant civil liberties but which, in practice, operates like a corporation. Liberty for the many will be reduced to market forms, the ability to buy and sell, within the rules designed by and for the property owners. Centralised state power within an overall authoritarian social culture is the best way to achieve this aim.
It should be stressed that the rise of inequality and centralised state power has came about by design, not by accident. Both trends delight the rich and the right, whose aim has always been to exclude the general population from the public sphere, eliminate taxation on wealth and income derived from owning it and roll back the limited reforms the general population have won over the years. In his book Post-Conservative America Kevin Phillips, one of the most knowledgeable and serious conservative ideologues, discusses the possibility of fundamental alterations that he regards as desirable in the US government. His proposals leave no doubt about the direction in which the Right wishes to proceed. “Governmental power is too diffused to make difficult and necessary economic and technical decisions,” Phillips maintains. “[A]ccordingly, the nature of that power must be re-thought. Power at the federal level must be augmented, and lodged for the most part in the executive branch.” [p. 218] He assures us that all the changes he envisions can be accomplished without altering the Constitution.
As one moderate British Conservative MP has documented, the “free-market” Conservative Thatcher government of the 1980s increased centralisation of power and led a sustained “assault on local government.” One key reason was “dislike of opposition” which applied to “intermediate institutions” between the individual and the state. These “were despised and disliked because they got in the way of ‘free-market forces’ . . . and were liable to disagree with Thatcherite policies.” Indeed, they simply abolished elected local governments (like the Greater London Council) which were opposed to the policies of the central government. They controlled the rest by removing their power to raise their own funds, which destroyed their local autonomy. The net effect of neo-liberal reforms was that Britain became “ever more centralised” and local government was “fragmenting and weakening.” [Dancing with Dogma, p. 261, p. 262 and p. 269]
This reversal of what, traditionally, conservatives and even liberals had argued had its roots in the “free market” capitalist ideology. For “[n]othing is to stand in the way of the free market, and no such fripperies as democratic votes are to be allowed to upset it. The unadulterated free market is unalterable, and those who dislike it or suffer from it must learn to put up with it. In Rousseau’s language, they must be forced to be free.” as such there was “no paradox” to the “Thatcherite devotion to both the free market and a strong state” as the “establishment of individualism and a free-market state is an unbending if not dictatorial venture which demands the prevention of collective action and the submission of dissenting institutions and individuals.” Thus rhetoric about “liberty” and rolling back the state can easily be “combined in practice with centralisation and the expansion of the state’s frontiers.” [Op. Cit., pp. 273-4 and p. 273] A similar process occurred under Reagan in America.
As Chomsky stresses, the “antidemocratic thrust has precedents, of course, but is reaching new heights” under the current set of “reactionary statists” who “are dedicated warriors. With consistency and passion that approach caricature, their policies serve the serve the substantial people — in fact, an unusually narrow sector of them — and disregard or harm the underlying population and future generations. They are also seeking to use their current opportunities to institutionalise these arrangements, so that it will be no small task to reconstruct a more humane and democratic society.” [Op. Cit., p. 238 and p. 236] As we noted in section D.1, the likes of Reagan, Thatcher and Bush do not appear by accident. They and the policies they implement reflect the interests of significant sectors of the ruling elite and their desires. These will not disappear if different, more progressive sounding, politicians are elected. Nor will the nature of the state machine and its bureaucracy, nor will the workings and needs of the capitalist economy.
This helps explains why the distinctions between the two major parties in the US have been, to a large extent, virtually obliterated. Each is controlled by the corporate elite, albeit by different factions within it. Despite many tactical and verbal disagreements, virtually all members of this elite share a basic set of principles, attitudes, ideals, and values. Whether Democrat or Republican, most of them have graduated from the same Ivy League schools, belong to the same exclusive social clubs, serve on the same interlocking boards of directors of the same major corporations, and send their children to the same private boarding schools (see G. William Domhoff, Who Rules America Now? and C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite). Perhaps most importantly, they share the same psychology, which means that they have the same priorities and interests: namely, those of corporate America. That the Democrats are somewhat more dependent and responsive to progressive working class people while the Republicans are beholden to the rich and sections of the religious right come election time should not make us confuse rhetoric with the reality of policies pursued and underlying common assumptions and interests.
This means that in the USA there is really only one party — the Business Party — which wears two different masks to hide its real face from the public. Similar remarks apply to the liberal democratic regimes in the rest of the advanced capitalist states. In the UK, Blair’s “New Labour” has taken over the mantle of Thatcherism and have implemented policies based on its assumptions. Unsurprisingly, it received the backing of numerous right-wing newspapers as well as funding from wealthy individuals. In other words, the UK system has mutated into a more US style one of two Business parties one of which gets more trade union support than the other (needless to say, it is unlikely that Labour will be changing its name to “Capital” unless forced to by the trading standards office nor does it look likely that the trade union bureaucracy will reconsider their funding in spite of the fact New Labour simply ignored them when not actually attacking them!). The absence of a true opposition party, which itself is a main characteristic of authoritarian regimes, is thus an accomplished fact already, and has been so for many years.
Besides the reasons noted above, another cause of increasing political centralisation under capitalism is that industrialisation forces masses of people into alienated wage slavery, breaking their bonds to other people, to the land, and to tradition, which in turn encourages strong central governments to assume the role of surrogate parent and to provide direction for their citizens in political, intellectual, moral, and even spiritual matters. (see Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism). And as Marilyn French emphasises in Beyond Power, the growing concentration of political power in the capitalist state can also be attributed to the form of the corporation, which is a microcosm of the authoritarian state, since it is based on centralised authority, bureaucratic hierarchy, antidemocratic controls, and lack of individual initiative and autonomy. Thus the millions of people who work for large corporations tend automatically to develop the psychological traits needed to survive and “succeed” under authoritarian rule: notably, obedience, conformity, efficiency, subservience, and fear of responsibility. The political system naturally tends to reflect the psychological conditions created at the workplace, where most people spend about half their time.
Reviewing such trends, Marxist Ralph Miliband concludes that “it points in the direction of a regime in which democratic forms have ceased to provide effective constraints upon state power.” The “distribution of power” will become “more unequal” and so “[h]owever strident the rhetoric of democracy and popular sovereignty may be, and despite the ‘populist’ overtones which politics must now incorporate, the trend is toward the ever-greater appropriation of power at the top.” [Divided Societies, p. 166 and p. 204] As such, this reduction in genuine liberty, democracy and growth in executive power does not flow simply from the intentions of a few bad apples. Rather, they reflect economic developments, the needs of the system as a whole plus the pressures associated with the way specific institutions are structured and operate as well as the need to exclude, control and marginalise the general population. Thus while we can struggle and resist specific manifestations of this process, we need to fight and eliminate their root causes within capitalism and statism themselves if we want to turn them back and, eventually, end them.
This increase in centralised and authoritarian rule may not result in obvious elimination of such basic rights as freedom of speech. However, this is due to the success of the project to reduce genuine freedom and democracy rather than its failure. If the general population are successfully marginalised and excluded from the public sphere (i.e. turned into Locke’s system of being within but not part of a society) then a legal framework which recognises civil liberties would still be maintained. That most basic liberties would remain relatively intact and that most radicals will remain unmolested would be a testimony to the lack of power possessed by the public at large in the existing system. That is, countercultural movements need not be a concern to the government until they become broader-based and capable of challenging the existing socio-economic order — only then is it “necessary” for the repressive, authoritarian forces to work on undermining the movement. So long as there is no effective organising and no threat to the interests of the ruling elite, people are permitted to say whatever they want. This creates the illusion that the system is open to all ideas, when, in fact, it is not. But, as the decimation of the Wobblies and anarchist movement after the First World War first illustrated, the government will seek to eradicate any movement that poses a significant threat.
We have previously noted the recent increase in the rate of wealth polarisation, with its erosion of working-class living standards (see section B.7). This process has been referred to by Noam Chomsky as “Third-Worldisation.” It is appearing in a particularly acute form in the US — the “richest” industrialised nation which also has the highest level of poverty, since it is the most polarised — but the process can be seen in other “advanced” industrial nations as well, particularly in the UK. As neo-liberalism has spread, so has inequality soared.
Third World governments are typically authoritarian, since harsh measures are required to suppress rebellions among their impoverished and discontented masses. Hence “Third-Worldisation” implies not only economic polarisation but also increasingly authoritarian governments. As Philip Slater puts it, a large, educated, and alert “middle class” (i.e. average income earners) has always been the backbone of democracy, and anything that concentrates wealth tends to weaken democratic institutions. [A Dream Deferred, p. 68] This analysis is echoed by left-liberal economist James K. Galbraith:
“As polarisation of wages, incomes and wealth develops, the common interests and common social programs of society fall into decline. We have seen this too, in this country over thirty years, beginning with the erosion of public services and public investments, particularly in the cities, with the assault on the poor and on immigrants and the disabled that led to the welfare bill of 1996, and continuing now manufactured crises of Medicare and the social security system. The haves are on the march. With growing inequality, so grows their power. And so also diminish the voices of solidarity and mutual reinforcement, the voices of civil society, the voices of a democratic and egalitarian middle class.” [Created Unequal: The Crisis in American Pay, p. 265]
If this is true, then along with increasing wealth polarisation in the US we should expect to see signs of growing authoritarianism. This hypothesis is confirmed by numerous facts, including the following: continuing growth of an “imperial presidency” (concentration of political power); extralegal operations by the executive branch (e.g. the Iran-Contra scandal, the Grenada and Panama invasions); skyrocketing incarceration rates; more official secrecy and censorship; the rise of the Far Right; more police and prisons; FBI requests for massive wiretapping capability; and so on. Public support for draconian measures to deal with crime reflect the increasingly authoritarian mood of citizens beginning to panic in the face of an ongoing social breakdown, which has been brought about, quite simply, by ruling-class greed that has gotten out of hand — a fact that is carefully obscured by the media. The 911 attacks have been used to bolster these authoritarian trends, as would be expected.
One might think that representative democracy and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms would make an authoritarian government impossible in the United States and other liberal democratic nations with similar constitutional “protections” for civil rights. In reality, however, the declaration of a “national emergency” would allow the central government to ignore constitutional guarantees with impunity and set up what Hannah Arendt calls “invisible government” — mechanisms allowing an administration to circumvent constitutional structures while leaving them nominally in place. The erosion of civil liberties and increase in state powers post-911 in both the US and UK should show that such concerns are extremely valid.
In response to social breakdown or “terrorism,” voters may turn to martial-style leaders (aided by the media). Once elected, and with the support of willing legislatures and courts, administrations could easily create much more extensive mechanisms of authoritarian government than already exist, giving the executive branch virtually dictatorial powers. Such administrations could escalate foreign militarism, further expand the funding and scope of the police, national guard units, secret police and foreign intelligence agencies, and authorise more widespread surveillance of citizens as well as the infiltration of dissident political groups (all of which happened in post-911 America). There would be a corresponding rise of government secrecy (as “popular understanding of the workings of government is not conducive to instilling proper reverence for powerful leaders and their nobility.” [Chomsky, Failed States, p.238]). These developments would not occur all at once, but so gradually, imperceptibly, and logically — given the need to maintain “law and order” — that most people would not even be aware that an authoritarian take-over was underway. Indeed, there is substantial evidence that this is already underway in the US (see Friendly Fascism by Bertram Gross for details).
We will examine some of the symptoms of growing authoritarianism listed above, again referring primarily to the example of the United States. The general trend has been a hollowing out of even the limited democratic structures associated with representative states in favour of a purely formal appearance of elections which are used to justify ignoring the popular will, authoritarianism and “top-down” rule by the executive. While these have always been a feature of the state (and must be, if it is to do its function as we discussed in section B.2) the tendencies are increasing and should be of concern for all those who seek to protect, never mind, expand what human rights and civil liberties we have. While anarchists have no illusions about the nature of even so-called democratic states, we are not indifferent to the form of state we have to endure and how it changes. As Malatesta put it:
“there is no doubt that the worst of democracies is always preferable, if only from an educational point of view, than the best of dictatorships. Of course democracy, so-called government of the people, is a lie; but the lie always slightly binds the liar and limits the extent of his arbitrary power . . . Democracy is a lie, it is oppression and is in reality, oligarchy; that is, government by the few to the advantage of a privileged class. But we can still fight it in the name of freedom and equality, unlike those who have replaced it or want to replace it with something worse.” [The Anarchist Revolution, p. 77]
We must stress that as long as governments exist, then this struggle against authoritarianism will continue. As Kropotkin argued, these tendencies “do not depend on individuals; they are inherent in the institution.” We must always remember that “[o]f its own accord, representative government does not offer real liberties, and it can accommodate itself remarkably well to despotism. Freedoms have to be seized from it, as much as they do from absolute kings; and once they have been gained they must be defended against parliament as much as they were against a king.” [Words of a Rebel, p. 137 and p. 123]
So we cannot assume that legal rights against and restrictions on state or economic power are enough in themselves. Liberty needs to be continually defended by the mass of the population who cannot leave it to others to act for them. “If we want . . . to leave the gates wide open to reaction,” Kropotkin put it, “we have only to confide our affairs to a representative government.” Only “extra-parliamentary agitation” will stop the state “imping[ing] continually on the country’s political rights” or “suppress[ing] them with a strike of the pen.” The state must always “find itself faced by a mass of people ready to rebel.” [Op. Cit. p. 129 and p. 124]
Authoritarian governments are characterised by fully developed secret police forces, extensive government surveillance of civilians, a high level of official secrecy and censorship, and an elaborate system of state coercion to intimidate and silence dissenters. All of these phenomena have existed in the US since suppression of the anarchist inspired No-Conscription League and the IWW for its unionising and anti-war activity. The post-World War I Red Scare and Palmer raids continued this process of wartime jailings and intimidation, combined with the deportation of aliens (the arrest, trial and subsequent deportation of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman is but one example of this war on radicals). [Howard Zinn, A People’s History of America, pp. 363-7]
However, since World War II these systems have taken more extreme forms, especially during the 1980s and 2000s. Indeed, one of the most disturbing revelations to emerge from the Iran-Contra affair was the Reagan administration’s contingency plan for imposing martial law. Alfonso Chardy, a reporter for the Miami Herald, revealed in July 1987 that Lt. Col. Oliver North, while serving on the National Security Council’s staff, had worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on a plan to suspend the Bill of Rights by imposing martial law in the event of “national opposition to a US military invasion abroad.” [Richard O. Curry (ed.), Freedom at Risk: Secrecy, Censorship, and Repression in the 1980s] However, this rise in authoritarian-style government policies is not limited to just possibilities and so in this section we will examine the operations of the secret police in the USA since the 1950s. First, however, we must stress that these tendencies are hardly US specific. For example, the secret services in the UK have regularly spied on left-wing groups as well as being heavily involved in undermining the 1984-5 Miners strike. [S. Milne, The Enemy Within]
The creation of an elaborate US “national security” apparatus has come about gradually since 1945 through congressional enactments, numerous executive orders and national security directives, and a series of Supreme Court decisions that have eroded First Amendment rights. The policies of the Reagan administration, however, reflected radical departures from the past, as revealed not only by their comprehensive scope but by their institutionalisation of secrecy, censorship, and repression in ways that will be difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate. As Richard Curry points out, the Reagan administration’s success stems “from major structural and technological changes that have occurred in American society during the twentieth century — especially the emergence of the modern bureaucratic State and the invention of sophisticated electronic devices that make surveillance possible in new and insidious ways.” [Op. Cit., p. 4]
The FBI has used “countersubversive” surveillance techniques and kept lists of people and groups judged to be potential national security threats since the days of the Red Scare in the 1920s. Such activities were expanded in the late 1930s when Franklin Roosevelt instructed the FBI to gather information about Fascist and Communist activities in the US and to conduct investigations into possible espionage and sabotage (although for most of the 1920s and 1930s, fascists and fascist sympathisers were, at best, ignored and, at worse, publicly praised while anti-fascists like anarchist Carol Tresca were spied on and harassed by the authorities. [Nunzio Pernicone, Carlo Tresca]). FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover interpreted these directives as authorising open-ended inquiries into a very broad category of potential “subversives”; and by repeatedly misinforming a succession of careless or indifferent presidents and attorneys general about the precise scope of Roosevelt’s directives, Hoover managed for more than 30 years to elicit tacit executive approval for continuous FBI investigations into an ever-expanding class of political dissidents. [Geoffrey R. Stone, “The Reagan Administration, the First Amendment, and FBI Domestic Security Investigations,” Curry (ed.), Op. Cit.]
The advent of the Cold War, ongoing conflicts with the Soviet Union, and fears of the “international Communist conspiracy” provided justification not only for covert CIA operations and American military intervention in countries all over the globe, but also contributed to the FBI’s rationale for expanding its domestic surveillance activities. Thus in 1957, without authorisation from Congress or any president, Hoover launched a highly secret operation called COINTELPRO:
“From 1957 to 1974, the bureau opened investigative files on more than half a million ‘subversive’ Americans. In the course of these investigations, the bureau, in the name of ‘national security,’ engaged in widespread wire-tapping, bugging, mail-openings, and break-ins. Even more insidious was the bureau’s extensive use of informers and undercover operative to infiltrate and report on the activities and membership of ‘subversive’ political associations ranging from the Socialist Workers Party to the NAACP to the Medical Committee for Human Rights to a Milwaukee Boy Scout troop.” [Stone, Op. Cit., p. 274]
But COINTELPRO involved much more than just investigation and surveillance. As Chomsky notes, it was “one of its major programs of repression” and was used to discredit, weaken, and ultimately destroy the New Left and Black radical movements of the sixties and early seventies, i.e. to silence the major sources of political dissent and opposition. It’s aim was to “disrupt” a wide range of popular movements “by instigating violence in the ghetto, direct participation in police assassination of a Black Panther organiser, burglaries and harassment of the Socialist Workers Party over many years, and other methods of defamation and disruption.” [Necessary Illusions, p. 189]
The FBI fomented violence through the use of agents provocateurs and destroyed the credibility of movement leaders by framing them, bringing false charges against them, distributing offensive materials published in their name, spreading false rumours, sabotaging equipment, stealing money, and other dirty tricks. By such means the Bureau exacerbated internal frictions within movements, turning members against each other as well as other groups. For example, during the civil rights movement, while the government was making concessions and verbally supporting the movement, the FBI was harassing and breaking up black groups. Between 1956 and 1971, the FBI took 295 actions against black groups as part of COLINTELPRO. [Zinn, Op. Cit., p. 455]
Government documents show the FBI and police involved in creating acrimonious disputes which ultimately led to the break-up of such groups as Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panther Party, and the Liberation News Service. The Bureau also played a part in the failure of such groups to form alliances across racial, class, and regional lines. The FBI is implicated in the assassination of Malcolm X, who was killed in a “factional dispute” that the Bureau bragged of having “developed” in the Nation of Islam. Martin Luther King, Jr., was the target of an elaborate FBI plot to drive him to suicide before he was conveniently killed by a lone sniper. Other radicals were portrayed as “Communists”, criminals, adulterers, or government agents, while still others were murdered in phoney “shoot-outs” where the only shooting was done by the police.
These activities finally came to public attention because of the Watergate investigations, congressional hearings, and information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In response to the revelations of FBI abuse, Attorney General Edward Levi in 1976 set forth a set of public guidelines governing the initiation and scope of the bureau’s domestic security investigations, severely restricting its ability to investigate political dissidents.
The Levi guidelines, however, proved to be only a temporary reversal of the trend. Although throughout his presidency Ronald Reagan professed to be against the increase of state power in regard to domestic policy, he in fact expanded the power of the national bureaucracy for “national security” purposes in systematic and unprecedented ways. One of the most significant of these was his immediate elimination of the safeguards against FBI abuse that the Levi guidelines had been designed to prevent. This was accomplished through two interrelated executive branch initiatives: Executive Order 12333, issued in 1981, and Attorney General William French Smith’s guidelines, which replaced Levi’s in 1983. The Smith guidelines permitted the FBI to launch domestic security investigations if the facts “reasonably indicated” that groups or individuals were involved in criminal activity. More importantly, however, the new guidelines also authorised the FBI to “anticipate or prevent crime.” As a result, the FBI could now investigate groups or individuals whose statements “advocated” criminal activity or indicated an apparent intent to engage in crime, particularly crimes of violence.
As Curry notes, the language of the Smith guidelines provided FBI officials with sufficient interpretative latitude to investigate virtually any group or individual it chose to target, including political activists who opposed the administration’s foreign policy. Not surprisingly, under the new guidelines the Bureau immediately began investigating a wide variety of political dissidents, quickly making up for the time it had lost since 1976. Congressional sources show that in 1985 alone the FBI conducted 96 investigations of groups and individuals opposed to the Reagan Administration’s Central American policies, including religious organisations who expressed solidarity with Central American refugees.
Since the 1980s, the state has used the threat of “terrorism” (both domestic and international) to bolster its means of repression. The aim has been to allow the President, on his own initiative and by his own definition, to declare any person or organisation “terrorist” and so eliminate any rights they may, in theory, have. The 911 attacks were used to pass in effect a “wish-list” (in the form of the PATRIOT act) of measures long sought by both the secret state and the right but which they had difficulty in passing previously due to public scrutiny. Post-911, as after the Oklahoma bombing, much opposition was muted while those that did raise their voices were dismissed as, at best, naive or, at worse, pro-terrorist.
Post-911, presidential rulings are considered as conclusive while the Attorney General was handed new enforcement powers, e.g. suspects would be considered guilty unless proven innocent, and the source or nature of the evidence brought against suspects would not have to be revealed if the Justice Department claimed a “national security” interest in suppressing such facts, as of course it would. Security agencies were given massive new powers to gather information on and act against suspected “terrorists” (i.e., any enemy of the state, dissident or critic of capitalism). As intended, the ability to abuse these powers is staggering. They greatly increased the size and funding of the FBI and gave it the power to engage in “anti-terrorist” activities all over the country, without judicial oversight. Unsurprisingly, during the run-up to the Iraq invasion of 2003, the anti-war movement was targeted with these new powers of surveillance. That the secret state, for example, seriously argued that potential “terrorists” could exist within Quaker peace groups says it all. Unsurprisingly, given the history of the secret state the new measures were turned against the Left, as COINTELPRO and similar laws were in the past.
If, as the Bush Administration continually asserted, the terrorists hate the west for our freedoms (rather than their self-proclaimed hatred of US foreign policy) then that government is the greatest appeaser the world has ever seen (not to mention the greatest recruiting agent they ever had). It has done more to undermine freedom and increase state power (along with the threat of terrorism) that the terrorists ever dreamed. However, it would be a mistake to draw the conclusion that it is simply incompetence, arrogance and ignorance which was at work (tempting as that may be). Rather, there are institutional factors at work as well (a fact that becomes obvious when looking at the history of the secret state and its activities). The fact that such draconian measures were even considered says volumes about the direction in which the US — and by implication the other “advanced” capitalist states — are headed.
The tendency toward social breakdown which is inherent in the growth of wealth polarisation, as discussed above, is also producing a growth in racism in the countries affected. As we have seen, social breakdown leads to the increasingly authoritarian government prompted by the need of the ruling class to contain protest and civil unrest among those at the bottom of the wealth pyramid. In the US those in the lowest economic strata belong mostly to racial minorities, while in several European countries there are growing populations of impoverished minorities from the Third World, often from former colonies. The desire of the more affluent strata to justify their superior economic positions is, as one would expect, causing racially based theories of privilege to become more popular.
That racist feelings are gaining strength in America is evidenced by the increasing political influence of the right, whose thinly disguised racism reflects the darkening vision of a growing segment of the conservative community. Further evidence can be seen in the growth of ultraconservative extremist groups preaching avowedly racist philosophies, such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nations, the White Aryan Resistance, and others (see James Ridgeway’s Blood in the Face: The Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, Nazi Skinheads, and the Rise of a New White Culture). Much the same can be said of Europe, with the growth of parties like the BNP in Britain, the FN in France and similar organisations elsewhere.
Most conservative politicians have taken pains to distance themselves officially from the extreme right. Yet they are dependent on getting votes of those influenced by the right-wing media personalities and the extreme right. This means that this racism cannot help seep into their election campaigns and, unsurprisingly, mainstream conservative politicians have used, and continue to use, code words and innuendo (“welfare queens,” “quotas,” etc.) to convey a thinly veiled racist message. This allows mainstream right-wingers to exploit the budding racism of lower- and middle-class white youths, who must compete for increasingly scarce jobs with desperate minorities who are willing to work at very low wages. As Lorenzo Lom’boa Ervin notes:
“Basing themselves on alienated white social forces, the Nazis and Klan are trying to build a mass movement which can hire itself out to the Capitalists at the proper moment and assume state power . . . Fascism is the ultimate authoritarian society when in power, even though it has changed its face to a mixture of crude racism and smoother racism in the modern democratic state.
“So in addition to the Nazis and the Klan, there are other Right-Wing forces that have been on the rise . . . They include ultra-conservative rightist politicians and Christian fundamentalist preachers, along with the extreme right section of the Capitalist ruling class itself, small business owners, talk show hosts . . . along with the professors, economists, philosophers and others in academia who are providing the ideological weapons for the Capitalist offensive against the workers and oppresses people. So not all racists wear sheets. These are the ‘respectable’ racists, the New Right conservatives . . . The Capitalist class has already shown their willingness to use this conservative movement as a smoke screen for an attack on the Labor movement, Black struggle, and the entire working class.” [Anarchism and the Black Revolution, p. 18]
The expanding popularity of such racist groups in the US is matched by a similar phenomenon in Europe, where xenophobia and a weak economy have propelled extreme right-wing politicians into the limelight on promises to deport foreigners. This poisons the whole mainstream political spectrum, with centre and centre-left politicians pandering to racism and introducing aspects of the right’s agenda under the rhetoric of “addressing concerns” and raising the prospect that by not doing what the right wants, the right will expand in influence. How legitimising the right by implementing its ideas is meant to undercut their support is never explained, but the “greater evil” argument does have its utility for every opportunistic politician (particularly one under pressure from the right-wing media whipping up scare stories about immigration and such like to advance the interests of their wealthy backers).
What easier way is there to divert people’s anger than onto scapegoats? Anger about bad housing, no housing, boring work, no work, bad wages and conditions, job insecurity, no future, and so on. Instead of attacking the real causes of these (and other) problems, people are encouraged to direct their anger against people who face the same problems just because they have a different skin colour or come from a different part of the world! Little wonder politicians and their rich backers like to play the racist card — it diverts attention away from them and the system they run (i.e. the real causes of our problems).
Racism, in other words, tries to turn class issues into “race” issues. Little wonder that sections of the ruling elite will turn to it, as and when required. Their class interests (and, often, their personal bigotry) requires them to do so — a divided working class will never challenge their position in society. This means that justifications for racism appear for two reasons. Firstly, to try and justify the existing inequalities within society (for example, the infamous — and highly inaccurate — “Bell Curve” and related works). Secondly, to divide the working class and divert anger about living conditions and social problems away from the ruling elite and their system onto scapegoats in our own class. After all, “for the past fifty years American business has been organising a major class war, and they needed troops — there are votes after all, and you can’t just come before the electorate and say, ‘Vote for me, I’m trying to screw you.’ So what they’ve had to do is appeal to the population on some other grounds. Well, there aren’t a lot of other grounds, and everybody picks the same ones . . . — jingoism, racism, fear, religious fundamentalism: These are ways of appealing to people if you’re trying to organise a mass base of support for policies that are really intended to crush them.” [Chomsky, Understanding Power, pp. 294-5]
Part of the right-wing resurgence in the US and elsewhere has been the institutionalisation of the Reagan-Bush brand of conservatism, whose hallmark was the reinstatement, to some degree, of laissez-faire economic policies (and, to an even larger degree, of laissez-faire rhetoric). A “free market,” Reagan’s economic “experts” argued, necessarily produced inequality; but by allowing unhindered market forces to select the economically fittest and to weed out the unfit, the economy would become healthy again. The wealth of those who survived and prospered in the harsh new climate would ultimately benefit the less fortunate, through a “trickle-down” effect which was supposed to create millions of new high-paying jobs.
All this would be accomplished by deregulating business, reducing taxes on the wealthy, and dismantling or drastically cutting back federal programmes designed to promote social equality, fairness, and compassion. The aptly named Laffer Curve (although invented without the burden of any empirical research or evidence) alleged to illustrate how cutting taxes actually raises government revenue. When this program of pro-business policies was applied the results were, unsurprisingly, the opposite of that proclaimed, with wealth flooding upwards and the creation of low-paying, dead-end jobs (the biggest “Laffers” in this scenario were the ruling class, who saw unprecedented gains in wealth at the expense of the rest of us).
The Reaganites’ doctrine of inequality gave the official seal of approval to ideas of racial superiority that right-wing extremists had used for years to rationalise the exploitation of minorities. If, on average, blacks and Hispanics earn only about half as much as whites; if more than a third of all blacks and a quarter of all Hispanics lived below the poverty line; if the economic gap between whites and non-whites was growing — well, that just proved that there was a racial component in the Social-Darwinian selection process, showing that minorities “deserved” their poverty and lower social status because they were “less fit.” By focusing on individuals, laissez-faire economics hides the social roots of inequality and the effect that economic institutions and social attitudes have on inequality. In the words of left-liberal economist James K. Galbraith:
“What the economists did, in effect, was to reason backward, from the troublesome effect to a cause that would rationalise and justify it . . . [I]t is the work of the efficient market [they argued], and the fundamental legitimacy of the outcome is not supposed to be questioned.
“The apologia is a dreadful thing. It has distorted our understanding, twisted our perspective, and crabbed our politics. On the right, as one might expect, the winners on the expanded scale of wealth and incomes are given a reason for self-satisfaction and an excuse for gloating. Their gains are due to personal merit, the application of high intelligence, and the smiles of fortune. Those on the loosing side are guilty of sloth, self-indulgence, and whining. Perhaps they have bad culture. Or perhaps they have bad genes. While no serious economist would make that last leap into racist fantasy, the underlying structure of the economists’ argument has undoubtedly helped to legitimise, before a larger public, those who promote such ideas.” [Op. Cit., p. 264]
The logical corollary of this social Darwinism is that whites who are “less fit” (i.e., poor) also deserve their poverty. But philosophies of racial hatred are not necessarily consistent. Thus the ranks of white supremacist organisations have been swollen in recent years by undereducated and underemployed white youths frustrated by a declining industrial labour market and a noticeably eroding social status. [Ridgeway, Op. Cit., p.186] Rather than drawing the logical Social-Darwinian conclusion — that they, too, are “inferior” — they have instead blamed blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Jews for “unfairly” taking their jobs. Thus the neo-Nazi skinheads, for example, have been mostly recruited from disgruntled working-class whites below the age of 30. This has provided leaders of right-wing extremist groups with a growing base of potential storm troopers.
Therefore, laissez-faire ideology helps create a social environment in which racist tendencies can increase. Firstly, it does so by increasing poverty, job insecurity, inequality and so on which right-wing groups can use to gather support by creating scapegoats in our own class to blame (for example, by blaming poverty on blacks “taking our jobs” rather than capitalists moving their capital to other, more profitable, countries or them cutting wages and conditions for all workers — and as we point out in section B.1.4, racism, by dividing the working class, makes poverty and inequality worse and so is self-defeating). Secondly, it abets racists by legitimising the notions that inequalities in pay and wealth are due to racial differences rather than a hierarchical system which harms all working class people (and uses racism to divide, and so weaken, the oppressed). By pointing to individuals rather than to institutions, organisations, customs, history and above all power — the relative power between workers and capitalists, citizens and the state, the market power of big business, etc. — laissez-faire ideology points analysis into a dead-end as well as apologetics for the wealthy, apologetics which can be, and are, utilised by racists to justify their evil politics.