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On Elections in an Empire

On Elections in an Empire

By Dennis Loo (11/26/15)

Everyone in the world knows, including in this country, that the US is the sole superpower.

What everyone does not know, most especially those in this country, is what exactly being a superpower entails.

The simplest way to put this - and the way that members of the pundit class have increasingly openly admitted in the last fifteen years or so - is that the US in an Empire.

This is explicitly admitted to and gladly embraced by both right wing and some of the liberal wing of the intelligentsia: people who appear in syndicated columns in places like the Washington Post, on MSNBC and Fox, and in books and magazines. 

For instance: 

“Being an imperial power, however, is more than being the most powerful nation or just the most hated one. It means enforcing such order as there is in the world and doing so in the American interest. It means laying down the rules America wants (on everything from markets to weapons of mass destruction) while exempting itself from other rules (the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and the International Criminal Court) that go against its interest.”

– Michael Ignatieff, Director of Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, writing in The New York Times Magazine, “American Empire: Get Used to It,” January 6, 2003.

This would be news to most but not all of the public who are more likely to get the version of this as in "This is the greatest country on earth!" Let's leave aside the fact that the vast majority of people who pronounce this particular cliche have never traveled at all or much outside of the US and if they have they haven't ventured very far beyond the tourist enclaves - so how would they know? What's their basis for comparison? They are convinced that the US must be the greatest country on earth because they hear it so often in school, from politicians, media, friends, and family. They are taught in school that we have rights few in the world do like the freedom of speech and assembly, the right to privacy, to due process, to being treated as innocent until proven guilty, etc. The same people who are so very proud of these rights that distinguish the US from so many other countries are also the very same people who almost without exception would never dream of actually exercising these rights and who are among the most likely people to condemn those who do exercise those rights as unpatriotic dissidents. If they did exercise those rights or saw those rights being trampeled here in the US or by the US abroad then their pronouncing that tired old cliche would end forthwith. 

But this is not the main point of my essay. My main point is what being an Empire means. In answering this question I am going to reprint something that I previously published here, but before posting it let me make one more observation about the US presidential nominations process. The most salient feature of these Democratic and Republican candidates this season is that a majority of voters are disaffected. This is evident in the popularity of Donald Trump (who probably thought he was not going to still be in the race and certainly didn't think that he would be the front runner by this point), Dr. Ben Carson, and Bernie Sanders, the so-called socialist. Sanders is more of a New Deal Democrat but by today's standards I guess being an FDR-style Democrat counts as being a flaming socialist. For sure Sanders is not going to be the Democratic nominee and for sure he is in the race objectively to draw the very disaffected into the illusion that they have a voice until the time comes when Sanders bows out gracefully and endorses Hillary. And then all of those or most of those who have been so energized by his candidacy will swallow the poison pill of "realism," and vote for Clinton, the "lesser evil." Never mind that the Democrat is not the lesser evil than the Republican, just the more reasonable and less reactionary sounding one, but no less an imperialist in their policies.

From the concluding passage of the following article, by way of introduction:

An Empire that wants to stay an empire will engage in atrocities as part of its arsenal to try to hold onto power. Empires such as Rome, the British Empire, and the US Empire do this not because those in authority such as Caesar or the Prime Minister or the President are evil individuals (although some of them might be evil) but because the system, in this case an empire, requires this for the empire to continue to be an empire. Empires by definition can only exist because they plunder and oppress whole nations and populations. Empires maintain an enormously unequal relationship with those that they dominate. If they did not use enormous amounts of violence to maintain their power, empires would be unable to stay empires because the nations and people that they plunder would successfully resist their being dominated. Empires use generous amounts of savage force to try to intimidate those who would otherwise resist being dominated. They do not stay empires because the majority of people who are dominated by them willingly allow themselves to be dominated and plundered. People of oppressed countries do not vote to be plundered.

Distinguishing Structures from Individuals and Primary from Secondary Factors

By Dennis Loo (3/3/14)

You cannot fix a system unless you understand how it works. This is something that people understand when it comes to everyday things like machines - such as a car that is not running or an iPhone that is on the blink - or a person whose health is troubled. You have to know how a car works, how iPhones work, and you have to understand how a person’s body works in order to have a chance at fixing them when they start to break down.

While we know a tremendous amount about human-made machines and how they work, that knowledge is not something equally shared in the population. Most people consult a mechanic who has specialized training in automobiles when their car malfunctions and make an appointment with someone at the “Genius Bar” in the Apple Stores when their iPhone starts working improperly.

When it comes to people’s health, you don’t have to know everything there is to know about the body because there is still much that we don’t yet understand, as biological systems are much more complex than automobiles. But there are certain fundamental matters that we do understand, such as that viruses and bacteria can cause illnesses and that we have immune systems that help us to stay well and that routinely fight off germs that we encounter constantly. Usually people who are ill will go to experts who have devoted themselves to studying and treating illnesses – physicians and other health care deliverers.

What people generally overlook, however, is that while expertise is needed to deal with the inherent complexities of matters such as repairing machines or treating human illnesses, they don’t similarly understand that politics involves more complexity than machines and because politics involves human behavior and systems, a lot more complexity is involved and you need to have much more sophistication to operate in the realm of politics effectively than experts who are consulted need to fix machines.

The upshot of this is that, first of all, the rhetoric and theory of democracies that the people are the deciders through their votes is absurd. The average person does not know enough and is certainly not sufficiently informed by mainstream media and by public officials and political parties to make sensible decisions.

It’s not that the average person isn’t smart enough. It’s that they don’t know and they have not been informed as to how political power is actually exercised. Even those who sincerely and diligently try to inform themselves about politics by daily keeping up with the news and reading in-depth analyses in magazines, listening to news analysts on TV and radio, reading political analyses online, etc., and even most of those who make their careers as scholars about politics do not know anywhere nearly enough to make sound decisions about politics.

This is a situation that can be fixed.

But it cannot be fixed as long as people adhere to the assumptions present in democratic theory that hold that you have a democracy as long as the people have a right to vote and “express their choices” through their votes and through contact with their political representatives.

Voting does not decide public policy. It is a myth that voting decides public policy. It is also a myth that the public decides public policy through their votes.

With few exceptions, people are not taught in schools and again with only a few exceptions, they are not taught in any other arena in public or private life that systems and system logic trump individuals. Many people reading this last sentence probably don’t even really understand it because they have probably never heard the idea that systems trump individuals. Even those who study sociology or anthropology, disciplines that would not exist without this fundamental principle that systems trump individuals, have a hard time with this principle and either don’t fully grasp it or don’t fully apply it in all matters, especially when it comes to politics. Even sociologists and anthropologists are not immune to this error. Many of them are not consistent in applying this principle in all matters.

Most people, including even some sociology students, say something like the following: “What do you mean, systems trump individuals? Individuals make systems what systems are. Social life is a product of the individuals who make up social life. People are selfish and greedy, that is why we have a society that is characterized by a lot of selfishness and greed. If people weren’t naturally self-centered, then society would be better than it is. But it’s human nature for people to be egocentric and greedy. Capitalism is the way that it is because of the people in capitalist societies: capitalism is an extension of human nature.”

This is what many people believe. They believe it because media, popular culture, and public officials tell them this daily and minute-by-minute.

The problem is that it’s wrong.

Systems are qualitatively different from the individuals who occupy those systems. Systems operate according to system logic, not because of the choices and values of the individuals in those systems. One of the ways that people express differences with this fundamental truth is by saying things like “things are messed up because the people are messed up. If they weren’t so self-centered, stupid, and/or lazy, they’d put some energy into finding out what the truth is and they’d do something about injustice and unfairness. Injustice and unfairness persist because the public is to blame for being in denial and being more interested in their own personal concerns or distracted by their technological toys.”

This all too common view grows out of the assumptions inherent in democratic theory. Democratic theory asserts that the public is the one in charge. The public elects those in public office to represent them and the public by its buying habits and by its viewing, reading, and listening habits determines what is in the media and what policies come about.

Thus, if things are messed up, blame the people.

One of the central problems with democratic theory is this assertion: it takes the entire onus of blame off the shoulders of elites in public office, media, and business more generally who are the authorities of these systems. Democratic theory says that it’s all the doing of the public because the public supports those in leading positions by voting for them or buying their products, whether those products are tangible objects such as TV shows, movies, music or other commodities, or non-material products such as ideas.

Why do people who might otherwise know better tend to think this way? They do this because they have unconsciously adopted the assumptions of democratic theory: society and systems are the way they are because the majority of people in those societies and systems choose to make them that way. If members of the public weren’t choosing the way they’re choosing then things wouldn’t be the way that they are. This is what democratic theory preaches.

This is not, however, how systems come to be what they are. Systems shape the individuals in them more than the individuals in systems shape the systems.

Everyone knows this in other areas such as when they are at their place of work. There are unwritten and unspoken rules for how to behave there (as with the rest of social life) and if you contradict through your words and/or actions the workplace culture, you are going to be in trouble.

When the leader of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, Philip Zimbardo, was asked to provide his insights into the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, he said that he was not in the least bit surprised that American soldiers were guilty of committing atrocities against Iraqi prisoners. He had already seen how the social context determines how people will behave and think in the Stanford Prison Experiment in which Stanford undergraduates were randomly assigned to play either prison guards or prisoners in a Stanford building basement. The simulated prison experiment was to last two weeks but it was shut down within a few days because it became all too much like a real prison almost immediately.

In the film that he made about the Stanford Prison Experiment, Zimbardo brings up the “Fallacy of False Attribution.” This is when people incorrectly attribute the operations and nature of systems to the values and behaviors of the individuals in those systems. Torture is not something that occurs because those doing the torturing are malevolent individuals. Torture happens when those in authority direct those under them to carry out torture. While some of the people torturing others may in fact be malevolent individuals, torture does not happen by governments because individuals in general are malevolent. An Empire that wants to stay an empire will engage in atrocities as part of its arsenal to try to hold onto power. Empires such as Rome, the British Empire, and the US Empire do this not because those in authority such as Caesar or the Prime Minister or the President are evil individuals (although some of them might be evil) but because the system, in this case an empire, requires this for the empire to continue to be an empire. Empires by definition can only exist because they plunder and oppress whole nations and populations. Empires maintain an enormously unequal relationship with those that they dominate. If they did not use enormous amounts of violence to maintain their power, empires would be unable to stay empires because the nations and people that they plunder would successfully resist their being dominated. Empires use generous amounts of savage force to try to intimidate those who would otherwise resist being dominated. They do not stay empires because the majority of people who are dominated by them willingly allow themselves to be dominated and plundered. People of oppressed countries do not vote to be plundered.

Part 2 is here.

 

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Elaine Brower of World Can't Wait speaking at the NYC Stop the War on Iran rally 2/4/12