““Remember, any state, any state, has a primary enemy: its own population.”
“It is almost always the case that a “spontaneous” movement of the subaltern
classes is accompanied by a reactionary movement of the right-wing of the dominant class, for concomitant reasons.”
There are all these narratives out there right now. The public discourse is in constant process of developing or erasing certain of these narratives, or finding that they often overlap. Edward Snowden’s saga seems to have become a lightening rod for *some* of them to come together. Yet, in all cases, one thing remains constant, and that is that the last thing the U.S. (and most of Europe, certainly the U.K. and France and to a slightly lesser degree, Germany) populace can imagine is a world without capitalism.
I think many people *do* know that the primary unspoken idea in the majority of public narratives is that Capitalism, the profit motive, and its attendant exploitive nature is in fact the root cause of some specific problem — but so deeply etched is the basic storyline of Capital, that these brief bursts of recognition are quickly subsumed in practical matters of survival. The Capitalist state, circa 2013, has a vast surplus population. And it’s a problem. No matter how quickly new prisons are built, this surplus population will outpace it.
Several news stories, besides Snowden’s, are illustrative of this (and more on that below) but what has happened to a vast swath of the U.S. public is that they seem to have perfected (or come close) to accepting narrative contradiction. Now, there are growing numbers of people who see clearly that the state is out there to punish dissent or punish organizing at a community level. Still, there are in that still quite substantial middle class…(really, the working class who have enough leverage to buy the appearance-even to themselves- of stability and privilege)….who will basically accept the master narrative as a piece.
There are several ways the mass media treats Snowden…..and one is with mockery….(below link with David Letterman and Tom Brokaw).
and another is with rabid snarling calls for arrest and a trial for treason (Dick Cheney, Dianne Feinstein, et al). Now, even with the liberal arm of the media (and one might identify Letterman as nominally liberal) you find the ideological backdrop is always quite clear. The narrative is performed by those with privileged positions within the system. What is left out, and yet is available in hundreds of historical studies, documentaries, and even a handful of movies, is that US history began with extermination, and has exercised brutal and bloody repression around the globe ever since its founding. It is not a secret, not any of it. And yet the comfortable white class in the U.S. is forever turning away. And they turn away with ever greater irritation at the subject being brought up.
Obviously the closer to present time one gets, the more pure propaganda may still be at work (think the Milosevic trial, Rwanda, and Chavez) and the further in the past one looks the more a sort of simplistic apologetics is firmly in place — along with a concurrent secondary narrative that says *progress is inevitable and sometimes that means there are casualities*. This is the new historicism of the Right. But I find among the liberal educated class that what has been consumed, and held to, is an idea that is quite close to that of the far right. The sub heading of this narrative is: *nothing much really changes….its all happened before, its been around for years, etc*. Its comfort zone cynicism. I say “comfort zone” because it is an unreflective and willful indifference to historical fact.
Things such as:
“The accumulated bones of perhaps 1,200 Chinamen came in by the eastern train yesterday from along the line of the Central Pacific Railroad. The lot comprises about 20,000 pounds. Nearly all of them are the remains of employees of the company, who were engaged in building the road. The religious customs of the Celestial Empire require that, whenever possible, the bones of its subjects shall be interred upon its own soil, and the strictness with which this custom is observed is something remarkable.
“DEAD CHINAMEN — Six cars are strung along the road between here and Toano, and are being loaded with dead Celestials for transportation to the Flowery Kingdom. We understand the Chinese Companies pay the Railroad Company $10 for carrying to San Francisco each dead Chinaman. Six cars, well stuffed with this kind of freight, will be a good day’s work. The remains of the females are left to rot in shallow graves while every defunct male is carefully preserved for shipment to the Occident.”
Elko Independent, January 5, 1870.
I mean the list can go on for volumes. I chose a few cases where the narrative has been co-opted and domesticated and even aestheticized. And which were part of domestic repression. US foreign policy is not a secret really, it’s just been expressed within a carefully prescribed set of jingoistic codes. It is propagandized.
What does the average educated liberal think when you ask them about The Shah of Iran? What do they say when you ask about US occupation of the Philippines? What do they say when you ask what happened in Rwanda? Or what happened in the former Yugoslavia? I wonder, though, domestically, and this one I honestly don’t have an answer for….its not a rhetorical question…but what does the term “mass incarceration” mean to most White Americans?
The answer to all the above will include in some way, an ideological backdrop in agreement with the status quo. And the status quo is white patriarchy, and it CAPITALIST.
Several other news items sort of cut across the Snowden story; the first being the George Zimmerman trial.And in particular the defense cross examination of Rachel Jeantel. The history of U.S: race relations, and of white surpremicism, has rarely been given such a clear presentation.
Justin Peters wrote:
“Racial and socioeconomic stereotypes play differently in different contexts. The statements and mannerisms that make Jeantel a laughingstock now might have made her a viral video star outside the courtroom. As I was watching Jeantel’s testimony and the subsequent reaction, I couldn’t help thinking about Aisha Harris’ Slate piece from May about the “fairly recent trend of ‘hilarious’ black neighbors, unwitting Internet celebrities whose appeal seems rooted in a ‘colorful’ style that is always immediately recognizable as poor or working-class.” Charles Ramsey, Antoine Dodson, Sweet Brown—these people caught white America’s attention in part because they so blatantly violated normative behavior. If Jeantel would’ve been filmed saying “That’s retarded, sir” to some reporter on the streets outside her house, the Internet might well be singing her praises. Black people are celebrated when they play the fool in the proper setting.”
(full article here..http://www.slate.com/blogs/crime/2013/06/28/rachel_jeantel_witness_in_george_zimmerman_trial_gets_the_trayvon_martin.html
Meanwhile, star New England Patriot tight end Aaron Hernandez was arrested for first degree murder.
Hernandez came out of the notoriously corrupt Florida football program of (at the time) Urban Meyer. Hernandez has had frequent run ins with the law, and with NFL drug policy (cue laugh track), but due to his untouchable status as star athlete….star FOOTBALL player, in a state where football is both a cult and an economic safety net for an otherwise depressed area of the country, Hernandez never had to deal with anything in the way or repurcussions.
Urban Meyer left Florida and its program in disarray but was quickly hired by Ohio State with a big bump in pay. Just win baby. Black people feature in corporate media as either selfish pampered athletes (oh, and over paid) and as comedy relief from the serious white news stories of the day. Of course what is left out is that 99.9% of young athletes, black and white, end up with nothing more than a few injuries, often serious, and that while the tiny fraction of elite stars do make obscene amounts in salary, even those salaries pale before the income of team owners. Which brings up a side bar story on the Washington Redskin mascot.
Nicely compiled by Dave Zirin:
The status quo are the owners. The corporate media treats them as grandfatherly old gents, sort of a cross between Mark Twain, Burl Ives, and Nelson Rockefeller. Players are treated as selfish, narrow, vain and poorly educated. The meme of the black jock who got a pass at Notre Dame (or Penn State, or Alabama, or Texas, or USC or…etc etc etc) is familiar. Liberal cries for reform in education, for a “return” to scholar athletes (cue laugh track) usually follow and some cliched nostalgic bromides about a lost innocent america are given voice. This is the same status quo that sees in Rachel Jeantel a ghetto problem child, a future welfare abuser and just too lazy to learn how to talk *right*.
This is the same status quo that reads Edward Snowden as a high school drop out, and who shouldn’t be given such an *important* job with a high security clearance. This same white liberal is giddy however with the success of getting gay marriage on the books. The gay community in fact reacts collectively in ever more conservative ways. The narrative for equality in marriage is sentimentalized and made into horrid Huffington Post kitsch fluff pieces. The very term *human interest* is now coded for sentimentalized trivia. Snowden’s heroism, his selflessness, is simply re-imagined as craven cowardice….:”HE RAN AWAY” hisses the pundit class on TV. As if he had driven his pick up over a crippled six year old and driven off into the night laughing between chugs of Old English. Snowden is seen as weak, as amoral and lacking in that masculinity we see in…well….Aaron Hernandez.
The cognitive dissonance surfaces, though, in popular media. In a new TV cop franchise, Graceland, what we used to call a blue skies show, a group of very cute hunky and hot FBI AND CIA AND DEA agents all share a house on the beach in Santa Monica. During an opening episode, one of the young *rookie* FBI agents is asked by his superior why he wanted to be an agent. He answers, because my grandfather was a photographer, news photographer, for the Bureau back when it first started and J. Edgar once asked for him personally. The rookie agent leans back, wistfully gazing into a private distance and mutters something in awe struck tones about *what it must have been like then*. Now, an entire fifty years of FBI domestic spying, of COINTELPRO, of inflitrating student or anti war protests, of murder and racism and the illegal spying on men like Martin Luther King is all air brushed aside, and with a surfboard in the background of the shot, the audience is given a short hand nod of approval for institutional authority.
Now, I’ve no idea what the target audience might be for this piece of shit, but I suspect its young white males. And probably that cuts across a lot of economic borders. For this is the same narrative that gives the owner of the “Redskins” a pass, that makes heroic a damaged and violent young man like Aaron Hernandez because he has size and speed enough to play for the Pats, and, most importantly, its the same narrative that stigmatizes Rachel Jeantel.
It is important to examine these things in patterns, I think. George Zimmerman takes on a kind of position as victim in this drama, and Trayvon becomes associated with those uppity black jocks with too many tattoos who sign ten million dollar bonuses. Why was he wearing that damn hood anyway? If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. This is the voice of the fascist government echoing down the corridors of that court in Florida.
The new American gulag, the mass prison complex that now is increasingly privatized, has been written about by Jared Ball, by Glenn Loury, and others (Michelle Alexander seems to be getting a lot of flack for her new book, and while I think a lot of that criticism is right, I’m a lot less sure making Alexander a target is useful. Solidarity and all that). The reality is, though, that the same mechanisms of looking away take place at even the suggestion of this topic being raised. Its safe to talk about gay marriage. That victory in bourgeois symbolism is an easier bone to throw the nervous masses which had been following the airline connections for Snowden, than having to stage manage a difficult Vladimir Putin. In black and Latino ghettos and barrios across the country, and in poor white America, the issue of prison doesn’t go away.
The contradictions continue with the obvious lies of Democrats and Republicans alike. The absolute thievery of the big banks, the deceit and corruption that saturates the industry — yet who is the villain du jour on network news? Rachel Jeantel. I continue to try to see the underlying symbols for discipline and authority in all of this. Equality in marriage reinforces the structural elements of Roman inheritance law. Its progressive in the sense that gay couples can claim what are often much needed economic benefits, but its probably simultaneously launching a breakout industry in Gay divorce lawyers. Anything that grants legitimacy to the legal system shouldn’t be embraced too tightly. In the sad story of Aaron Hernandez, the legacies of chattle and slavery are not too hard to spot. The purchase of several shares of the Brooklyn Nets by Jay Z only served to point out his role as entertainment to the real power brokers. Big time sports are billion dollar businesses. Players are just, in the end, machinery that breaks down far too often. I don’t doubt for a second that bio-engineered athletes are just around the corner. Its just another form of automation. And into all this runs a current of discipline. One hears echos in the language of finance. Workers are advised to show financial discipline. Avoid risk. Nose to the grindstone. The entire fabric of regulations, laws, and statutes, and the ordinances to govern everything from milk to massage parlors is set up to assist in the protection of property and privilege. This is capitalism. To make money, you have to count it correctly. You have to keep track of it. And it is crucial to keep track of workers and slaves alike. The control of workers and slaves means that policies of spying are built into the system. Capital needs new markets to keep growing. Spying comes in handy for that as well. In fact, the U.S. has spent most of it’s existence in pursuit of the property and land and resources of others. In the end, the military serves much the same purpose as prison. If slavery evolved into practices of strict economic controls, Jim Crow, … and this bled into the lack of social mobility for blacks and poor whites as well, and then into a marginalized surplus population which today serves no better purpose than as slave labor, only from within prison factories. It’s interesting to remember Kowloon, the walled city (I wrote about a month or so back) which the authorities in Hong Kong allowed to exist for decades because what it was in reality was a fifty thousand person work force that accepted sub standard wages in return for limited auditing by authorities. This was a big help to the service economy of Hong Kong.
Today the US and its increasingly automated military finds prison the only option for this growing underclass of untrained and unemployed. But ask white America what it thinks if you utter the term “mass incarceration”. I don’t think any of what I just wrote would come to mind. If one were to compare the US prison complex to Stalinst gulags you would be met with derision. The narrative is different, the images different, the *characters* different. For most Americans today (except those, like the poor, in general) who have direct experience with the judicial system, prison is a place for VIOLENT men, rapists, murderers and armed robbers. There is running alongside these simplistic stories of state heroism, of police virtue, and the eroticizing of violence, a clear message about neo liberal *success*. The idea of the system is that it rewards the winner– even as God does, and that it is, itself, the winning system. This is a sub-text for almost every show on TV and nearly every studio film today. There may be reform needed, but who won? WE DID!
“Over the past four decades, the United States has become a vastly punitive nation, without historical precedent or international parallel. With roughly 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. currently confines about one-quarter of the world’s prison inmates. In 2008, one in a hundred American adults was behind bars. Just what manner of people does our prison policy reveal us to be?
America, with great armies deployed abroad under a banner of freedom, nevertheless harbors the largest infrastructure for the mass deprivation of liberty on the planet. We imprison nearly as great a fraction of our population to a lifetime in jail (around seventy people for every hundred thousand residents) than Sweden, Denmark, and Norway imprison for any duration whatsoever.”
Glenn Loury, from earlier this year, at Washington Monthly.
” We have established what looks to the entire world like a racial caste system that leaves millions stigmatized as pariahs, either living behind bars or in conditions of concentrated crime and poverty that breed still more criminality. Why are we doing this?
The present American regime of hyper-incarceration is said to be necessary in order to secure public safety. But this is not a compelling argument. It is easy to overestimate how much crime is prevented by locking away a large fraction of the population. Often those who are incarcerated, particularly for selling drugs, are simply replaced by others. There is no shortage of people vying to enter illicit trades, particularly given how few legal paths to upward mobility exist for most young black males.”
Criminologist Todd Clear (whom Loury quotes) has said the extraordinary number of men in prison, especially from black neighborhoods, has made incarceration actually less stigmatized. That level of state jurisdiction, state custody or monitoring, has normalized the idea of defeat and of an adversarial dynamic with authority….marking out a new social ecology for the young and poor, and again, especially, of black youth.
The mass culture creates narratives for this, creates tropes and familiarizes an audience with these social facts. The message is “humans are disposable….especially those who have failed, those who are losers”. The surplus population must be correctly labeled, and that label reads “DISPOSABLE”.