A Few Notes on Fascist Politics

My copy of Jason Stanley’s excellent, short book How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them is on its way back to the library.   While reading it I wrote about the book in some detail HERE.    Before I turn it in for others to read (noting that free public libraries are one of the great institutions of democracy) I’d like to share some additional notes, which follow his ten points of fascist politics. 

MYTHIC PAST:   We once were great, then we were weakened by our eternal enemies, we will struggle to become great again.

PROPAGANDA:  if you can control the information and the spin that the public gets, the battle for public opinion is largely won.    Stanley wrote the book a couple of years ago, so he doesn’t give the following example (but I can):

An investigation reveals troubling evidence of wrongdoing by the president.  The president hires a new Attorney General to take control of the situation, which is threatening to spiral out of control for the president.   The new A.G. does not release the fully redacted summary of the report that is given to him by the investigator.   Instead the new A.G. announces that since the investigator “punted” and didn’t make a charging decision (for reasons the A.G. conveniently ignores) he has been forced to make the hard call on the mass of evidence contained in the report.  That call is “no collusion, no obstruction”.

“No collusion, no obstruction” is the only news the public has until a month later, when the A.G. releases the redacted report and the investigator’s own summaries.  By then, most Americans believe the president has been completely and totally (or at least largely) exonerated by a nothing-burger investigation.  Even though there is a massive trove of evidence that looks very incriminating to the president.

Even though the last lines of the Report  say if the investigator could have exonerated the president in the face of the weighty evidence against, he would have exonerated him.  He could not exonerate him.  No matter.

Propaganda is always simple, nuance is hard and tricky.  Who are you going to believe, someone who confidently says “I never lie” or a person who writes 448 dense pages of legalese examining the evidence behind that assertion in excruciating detail?

ANTI-INTELLECTUAL:  rigorous intellectual debate tends not to support fascist politics or the policies of fascism.   Everywhere fascism triumphs intellectuals and open debate have been removed from the public sphere.   Stanley writes (of the removal of certain books and subjects from university curricula):

The priorities here make sense when one realizes that in  antidemocratic systems, the function of education is to produce obedient citizens structurally obliged to enter the workforce without bargaining power and ideologically trained to think that the dominant group represents history’s greatest civilizational forces.  Conservative figures pour huge sums into the project of advancing right-wing goals in education.  For example, the Charles Koch Foundation, just one of the conservative foundations in the United States funded by right-wing oligarchs, alone spent $100 million to support projects largely devoted to conservative ideology at around 350 colleges and universities according to some sources. 

and

Throughout Mein Kampf, Hitler is clear that the aim of propaganda is to replace reasoned argument in the public sphere with irrational fears and passions.

UNREALITY:  believe half of what you see, none of what you hear, and everything the leader says.   There are facts and there are also, more importantly “alternative facts”.   

This disorienting storm of falsity, and distortion of language itself, is a deliberate tactic of fascist politics.  Stanley discusses  the liberal concept of  “the marketplace of ideas” where good arguments will, through the use of reason and persuasion, drive out bad arguments.  At least that’s the theory.

The argument for the  “marketplace of ideas”  presupposes that words are used only in their “descriptive, logical or semantic sense.”  But in politics, and most vividly in fascist politics, language is not used simply, or even chiefly, to convey information but to elicit emotion.   

and of special, sickening relevance to our current political situation:

…citizens look to politics for tribal identification, for addressing personal grievance, and for entertainment.   When news becomes sports, the strongman achieves a certain measure of popularity.  Fascist politics transforms the news from a conduit of information and reasoned debate into a spectacle with the strongman as the star.

HIERARCHY:  This applies to groups as much as to individuals in fascist politics, which, as Stanley’s title conjures, divides the world into us (good) and them (bad). Members of the inferior “them” groups are the ones citizens of the superior “us” group may freely take out their frustrations on.  

In the day to day politics of fascism, on a personal level, loyalty to the leader is the most important element to rising in the fascist “meritocracy”.

VICTIMHOOD:   Stanley begins the chapter describing President Andrew Johnson’s veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1866.   Johnson vetoed it on the ground that

“this law establishes for the security of the colored race safeguards which go infinitely beyond any that the General Government have ever provided for the white race.”  As W.E.B. Du Bois notes, Johnson perceived minimal safeguards at the start of a path toward future black equality as “discrimination against the white race.”

The fascist in group is always the fully justified, righteous victim of the angry out group.

LAW and ORDER:  This slogan stands in for the idea that law will be used to preserve and protect the desired order.   

A healthy democratic state is governed by laws that treat all citizens equally and justly, supported by bonds of mutual respect between people, including those tasked with policing them.  Fascist law-and-order rhetoric is explicitly meant to divide citizens into two classes: those of the chosen nation, who are lawful by nature, and those who are not, who are inherently lawless.

Stanley focuses on the explosion American incarceration where people of color are disproportionately arrested, convicted and sentenced.   Law and Order is a slogan that resonates much stronger than “we are afraid, as Jefferson was, of the righteous rage of a race on whose neck we have kept our foot for centuries.”  Nixon exploited this powerful, racially charged euphemism  in his presidential campaigns (his “southern strategy”) as have virtually all right-wing politicians since.  

SEXUAL ANXIETY:  Fascist politics is patriarchal, with the strongman leader as the hyper-masculine father of the nation.    Demonizing anyone who deviates from this vision of mythic order is a common element of fascist politics. 

SODOM AND GOMORRAH:  cities, which tend to be places where diverse populations live and work, and differences are tolerated, even embraced, are seen in fascist politics in stark contrast to the country, where the mythic national purity they extoll still prevails.   Stanley cites a  few counter-factual lines from one of Donald Trump’s campaign speeches:

“Our African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape that they’ve ever been in before, ever, ever, ever.   You take a look at the inner cities, you get no education, you get no jobs, you get shot walking down the street.”  And yet during this time, cities in the United States were enjoying their lowest rates of crime in generations and record low unemployment.  Trump’s rhetoric about cities makes sense in the context of a more general fascist politics, in which cities are seen as centers of disease and pestilence, containing squalid ghettos filled with despised minority groups living off the work of others.

ARBEIT MACHT FREI:  “Work Will Set You Free” was the false promise on the gates of places like Auschwitz where slave laborers were routinely worked to death.  Hard work is a trait of “us”, laziness and parasitism are traits of “them”.  It is not a stretch to argue, in a fascist society, that vicious, life-sapping parasites should be worked to death.

Stanley spends some time laying out the fascist hostility to organized labor.   In labor unions workers of various races, backgrounds, genders, sexual and political orientations have common goals: better working conditions, fair pay.  These shared goals tend to unite working people who fascists seek to keep apart, exploiting their differences to create the hierarchic caste system necessary for a fascist regime.

Mr. Hitler again, from Mein Kampf, calling the kettle black in the way of fascist leaders everywhere, projecting on to their enemies exactly what they are doing:

“[The Jew] is gradually assuming leadership of the trades-union movement– all the easier because what matters to him is not so much genuine removal of social evils as the formation of a blindly obedient fighting force in industry for the purpose of destroying national economic independence”  

Stanley demonstrates that fascist politics is more effective under conditions of stark economic inequality.    

I note that while the many of the wealthy captains of Germany industry were initially alarmed and horrified by Hitler’s rise,  as many of their counterparts here in America were by Trump’s ascendance, they soon found their profits rising, their wealth greatly enhanced and their privileges well-protected.   The most unscrupulous of the German businessmen availed themselves of Hitler’s generous offer of very low cost slave labor.  The SS charged $1 a day for death camp prisoners who could, literally, be worked to death making products for Germany.  

It has long appeared to me that slave labor (as long as their slavery can be kept secret) is the ultimate dream of corporate bottom-liners.   Corporate employers in Nazi Germany had the perfect situation, hard working very low cost employees who spent their nights in death camps and, obviously, no labor unions.   Hitler abolished them shortly after taking office, after allowing organized labor a last May Day parade in 1933 — he outlawed collective bargaining and the right to strike. 

This rascal we have now as president, I have to say, seems to check every box of fascist politics.  He is not alone, as the party he has seized leadership of has been steadily heading this way for the last few decades.  Hard to blame them, really.   The vast privileges of the inheritors of immense intergenerational wealth are threatened by the notion of things like a social safety net, a commitment to pursuing our common goals (like preventing the destruction of our biosphere) and fulfilling the basic human needs of citizens great and small.   The exponents of fascist politics, a politics of division, have expertly used people like Mitch McConnell and Mr. Trump while enlisting widespread support for otherwise unpopular policies that only help the already powerful.

God bless these United States, man.

 

To use or not to use the F word

How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them,  by Jason Stanley

(book review, or, more accurately, my recommendation of a thought-provoking book I am still reading)

It’s tempting, when a leader panders to ethnic hatred, relies on propaganda and attacks the press as the “enemy of the people”, consolidates power by demanding personal loyalty and threatening all opponents, exhibits excessive cruelty in his policies (like tearing children from the arms of their mothers), defends his actions by constantly attacking enemies he villainizes, rewards loyal cronies by appointing them to key positions they are unqualified for, openly monetizes his office for his own gain, is openly contemptuous of democracy and all law, except when laws can be used against enemies,  is compelled to publicly brag at every opportunity… it’s tempting to call such a leader a fascist.

Fascists, it’s true, also despise intellectuals, reasoned debate, media that is not fawning (and party-controlled), anyone in a position to apply reason and demonstrable facts in an argument opposing the leader’s will.  Dissent is seen as treason in a fascist, one-party state.   Anything not broadcast on the state-run channel is attacked as fake.   Fascists do many of the things our Orange Menace does here, it’s true, but is it correct to call Mr. T a fascist?

Jason Stanley, Jewish egghead know-it-all from Yale [1], son of holocaust survivors, makes an excellent case in his slim, very readable book How Fascism Works.   One can quibble, as some historians apparently have, that some of the economic policies of “classical fascism” are not in play in the USA and therefore… blah blah blah, but Mr. Stanley makes a very compelling case that we are dangerously close to becoming a fascist state, certainly as far as our politics goes.    He goes through ten characteristics of fascist regimes, focusing on fascist politics, and Trump scores beautifully on each of them.  (At the risk of seeming to ape Mr. Trump’s twitter style, I will put each of these characteristics in ALL CAPS)

The philosophy of fascism, if we may call a crude and violent system of coercion like fascism a “philosophy” (Stanley, a philosopher, reasonably takes no position on this) is born in struggle.  An eternal, existential struggle is a necessary element of the fascist worldview.   Like the titanic struggle Mr. Hitler heroically waged, after realizing the Jews were at the root of all evil, decadence and humiliation in Germany, and then overcoming a million enemies and a thousand obstacles to attain the leadership of Germany in order to finish the struggle against Jews and lead a pure Germany for the next thousand years.    Fascism is a philosophy of perpetual heroic war against evil, devious, inhuman enemies that must be eliminated.

Stanley starts with the MYTHIC PAST conjured in every fascist worldview. At one time our nation was great, the myth goes, it had the greatest culture and was glorious and undefeated in war.   Then X destroyed that greatness, by treacherously injecting our culture with fatal weakness.   To make our country great again, we must destroy X, inoculate our people against the residue of their poison, and eliminate anyone who has sympathy toward X and their repellant ideas.

PROPAGANDA is essential to the rise of a fascist state.  Masses have to be convinced of this mythic past and the necessity of a ruthless war to make the nation great again.  The only chapter in Hitler’s Mein Kampf that is not the incoherent blathering of a rabid dog (my words, not Stanley’s) is his shrewd, ruthless analysis of propaganda.   Stanley quotes historian W. E. B. Du Bois, who wrote in a discussion of propaganda in history that once the ideals of historical scholarship, truth and objectivity are bent strictly toward advancing a political goal you have propaganda, not history.   This rewriting, or forced forgetting, of fact-based, inquisitive history is a primary aim of totalitarians.  History itself must be replaced, in a fascist regime, by propaganda.

Stanley writes “political propaganda uses the language of virtuous ideals to unite people behind otherwise objectionable ends.”  He gives the example of Nixon’s “war on crime”, a campaign that concealed the racist intent behind Nixon’s selective (it was the blacks, Nixon believed, the goddamned blacks) crime control policies.  War, whatever reason it is actually waged for, is always couched in stirring, moral terms.  You cannot sell an idea like war without powerful slogans to persuade the public it is morally necessary.

In a commercial, advertising-driven democracy like ours, we are bombarded by a free flow of messages, increasingly so since we began carrying tiny personal computers in our pockets.  It is this free flow of ads and other “content” that gives a repressive ideology a chance to flourish (this is not one of Stanley’s points, but follow me here).   Stanley quotes Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda and public enlightenment, who famously said “this will always remain one of the best jokes of democracy, that it gave its deadly enemies the means by which it was destroyed.”   Goebbels also shrewdly noted (it should be noted), that the Nazis, if they won their war against Jews, would be regarded as history’s greatest benefactors, if they lost, they’d be remembered as the world’s most notorious criminals.  Word, history is written by the victors, in the blood of the vanquished.

Stanley’s third characteristic of fascism is ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM.   Traditionally intellectuals debate each other based on a great deal of reading, citing other intellectual’s studies, theories and conclusions to bolster their arguments.  The free exchange of ideas is essential to intelligent discussion of any problem.  Fascists despise this kind of thing.  In fact, the first thing they do is round up all the eggheads and kill as many as needed to get the cooperative silence they need to have only the fascist point of view heard.

OK, you can say, if you love Mr. Trump, he’s not anti-intellectual, he’s an extremely stable genius who has read many books, or at least one book, and he uses the best words, unbelievable words, and doesn’t rely on bullying anyone who criticizes him.  You get the idea.  

The shamelessly intellectual Jason Stanley, to the great annoyance of people who hate criticism of a great man, keeps quoting other sources, as his type (and mine) always seems to do, in support of his conclusions.   As no less an authority on fascism than Mr. Hitler himself wrote, in Mein Kampf:

All propaganda should be popular and should adapt its intellectual level to the receptive ability of the least intellectual of those whom it is desired to address.  Thus it must sink its mental elevation deeper in proportion to the numbers of the mass whom it has to grip… the receptive ability of the masses is very limited, and their understanding small, on the other hand, they have a great power of forgetting.  This being so, all effective propaganda must be confined to a very few points which must be brought out in the form of slogans. 

Hitler made it clear that the aim of propaganda is to “replace reasoned argument in the public sphere with irrational fears and passions” (Stanley’s words).  Bingo.  Fear of a hoard of illegals who rape, kill, torture, smuggle drugs, hate freedom replaces all reasonable discussion of solutions to a massive refugee crisis that is complicated and difficult to solve.

In terms of “messaging” which of the following resonates more powerfully and is easier to retain as the definitive end of the subject?

“No collusion, no obstruction, complete and total exoneration.”

or

“The evidence we obtained about the president’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment. At the same time, if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

One fits on a T-shirt (or red baseball cap) the other would require you to read hundreds of pages to even know what the fucking long-winded, lawyerly fuck is even talking about.  You choose!

Stanley then moves on to UNREALITY.   Language, traditionally used to clarify and elucidate, is co-opted to serve the needs of the fascist ideology. Words are often repurposed to mean the opposite of what they have always meant.  For example, sonderbehandlung “special handling” used to indicate the delivery of fragile and precious cargo, was stamped on the papers of stateless Jews on their way to Nazi death camps.

You cannot believe, according to a fascist leader, the things you see with your own eyes, these things are recast in some other, more purposeful, way.    Observable facts are rightfully opposed by equally compelling “alternative facts.”   Hannah Arendt points out that a “normal” person in Nazi Germany (normal from any traditional notion of morality), where mass-killing of enemies was considered necessary and highly moral, would have been considered abnormal, immoral enough to lawfully execute.  

In a society where it is normalized to take crying babies from their mother’s arms and lock the kids in cages you compare to “summer camp”, the person who objects to this admittedly tough but necessary measure, is called hysterical and an enemy of freedom.  Unreality becomes the new reality in a fascist state.

As for the famous liberal notion of a “marketplace of ideas” where reason rules and wise opinions vanquish stupid ones, forget that.  “…in politics, and most vividly in fascist politics, language is not used simply, or even chiefly, to convey information but to elicit emotion,” notes Stanley.  “Attempting to counter such rhetoric with reason is akin to using a pamphlet against a gun.”

HIERARCHY is Stanley’s fifth criterion of a fascist state.  Equality of citizens is seen as a ridiculous and destructive myth in fascism, which celebrates strength and despises weakness.   The greatest, chosen because of their clear superiority, lead the fascist state, the citizens follow their leader without question, recognizing the leader’s superiority.  Like the modern corporation, or any bureaucracy, really, accountability flows in one direction only.   Pawns and drones are obliged to obey orders from unaccountable superiors without question, because the person giving the orders is recognized as superior in every sense.  

The notion of human equality, is seen under fascism as a vice of the weak, and an affront to nature, which clearly favors the strong over the weak.  Fascists consider democratic debate, consensus and compromise related vices of the weak, who try to compensate for the fact that they lack the vision and infallible wisdom of the leader by some warped notion of wisdom residing in the memory and values of a community that is responsible for each other. 

One way to make a large mass of burdened people feel better is to assert their innate superiority over another mass of people.   Men are superior to women, whites to blacks, agrarians to urbanites, party members to dissenters.   This little hierarchical trick has worked beautifully for centuries.

Stanley next discusses the essential fascist trope of VICTIMHOOD.  In the fascist worldview the good, blameless people have clearly been victimized by implacable, evil enemies.  Justice demands this be redressed.  These villains should be hanging from lamp posts, from the unabashed fascist point of view.   A victim has every moral right to destroy their longtime abuser.  

I couldn’t help but notice this Hitler-in-the-bunker trope in one of our president’s many angry tweets after the Mueller Report (that totally exonerated him) was released (he is, after all, our Victim-in-Chief):

It is finally time to turn the tables and bring justice to some very sick and dangerous people who have committed very serious crimes, perhaps even spying and treason!

LAW AND ORDER, is Stanley’s next chapter (I have not read this chapter or beyond yet, though I will soon).  Law and Order, of course, are always things to be selectively applied, to enemies only.    Nixon’s henchman John Erlichmann told an interviewer in 1994 that it was impossible to criminalize being black or opposing Nixon or the Vietnam war, but that it was quite possible to make possession of certain drugs a felony under federal law, and that gave the lawless Mr. Nixon an enormous hammer to wield against his many enemies.  

The first thing Trump did when he announced his run for president was to summarily criminalize immigrants and asylum seekers, calling them rapists and murderers.   Which leads us to Stanley’s next criterion of fascism, sexual anxiety.

SEXUAL ANXIETY is a famous driver of murderous lynch mobs everywhere.   Blacks were often accused of raping white women before they were violently removed from prison, often under the watchful eye of local authorities, tortured and killed.    One wonders why there were virtually no accusations of black male slaves, left on the plantations down south while most of the able-bodied white men were fighting the Civil War, raping the wives and daughters of their owners.   It would be easy to understand their motivation, if such violence had happened.  

The absence of  stories of black on white rape during the war underscores the fallaciousness of most of the rape allegations in the years after the war.  The rape charges routinely used to justify a century of unpunished lynching were the product of the sexual anxiety of the racists who committed these bestial acts and used their own sexual anxieties, and righteous, if irrational, sense of victimhood, to justify them.  

Sexual anxiety, or course, is a patriarchal tic, the product of the same hyper-manly “toxic masculinity” that fascist leaders always project.   Why is intolerance of homosexuality often part of the fascist mindset?   Homophobia, literally a “fear of homosexuals”, always plays a large part in the anxieties of patriarchal types.   Who else is scared of somebody else’s sexual preference?

SODOM and GOMORRAH is Stanley’s next chapter.  This refers to the common fascist myth that cities, like universities not strictly controlled by the one-party state, are hotbeds of degeneracy, sin and potential violence, while the countryside is where true human decency prevails.   Cities that give sanctuary to raping hoards of illegals, tolerate homosexuality and transgender people, worship the false, unnatural ideals of equality and democracy are not reflections of the real values of the people.  

The morality of a nation is rooted in its soil, says the fascist myth, the people who live outside of the morally polluted cities are the truly great citizens, denizens of cities are hopelessly corrupt and need to be kept in check, punished.

ARBEIT MACHT FREI  is Stanely’s final chapter.   It is the logical extension of fascist ideology.   Your enemies have been stealing from and undermining the good people for generations, now it is time to turn them into slave laborers.   The name of the chapter is taken from the notorious sign that was worked into the top of the iron gates of the Auschwitz death/work camp. It meant “work liberates”. One of the most famous Nazi practical jokes, that slogan.  

Vernichtung durch Arbeit (extermination through work); i.e., hard labor until death, was an integral part of the Nazi extermination scheme.   Might as well generate capital from the labor of these vicious people you were exterminating, while you worked them to death.   The arbeit macht frei myth/lie reinforced the importance of unquestioning work for the benefit of the most important members of society.   If work could also liberate by enslaving and working your enemies to death?  Win win.

As the child of people whose parents’ entire generation was wiped off the face of the earth by fascists in the space of a few months in 1942, I don’t take any of these signs lightly.   The shit all lines up a little bit too symmetrically.  All indications are that Trump would love to be a fascist dictator, and that he’s pretty close already, with unquestioned support from a lock-step political party, an ideological mass media megaphone/echo chamber  and a sizable part of our population.    

If a leader who is openly contemptuous of law, and has always used the courts to avoid any liability for his many dishonest schemes, is not held accountable by the laws that govern democracy, we are already at the end of the joke Goebbels so enjoyed about democracy providing the means to achieve a fascist state.   If “politics” are nervously invoked by the timid and divided opposition party who fear strengthening a leader they claim belongs in prison, leaving the decision to the voters a year and a half from now rather than using the law to hold him to account, we are already very close to the end of our long experiment in democracy.

If the law is not enforced against unscrupulous people “too big to indict”, out of fear of electoral or other repercussions, we should just resign ourselves to the inevitable.   Line up, get our tattoos, and get into whatever cattle car they send for us to take us wherever they decide we need to end up.  

We have laws that can stop these determined, ruthless motherfuckers, there is no good choice but to use them.  Now.

Meantime, read Jason Stanley’s book, if you need any further convincing on the need to act.

 

[1] I can say this without fear, because I am a Jewish egghead know-it-all from the City College of NY.  Fuck off, Nazis.

A few thoughts on thinking

The most satisfying and memorable kind of conversation is like a great catch.  The thought you throw to the other person is held for a moment and tossed back, with an interesting additional idea, and it comes directly into your hand, for a moment of consideration, before you toss it back.  There is a rhythm to this kind of chat, and no rush to talk.

What you just said reminds me of something eerily similar that happened to me years ago.  I mention it.  You raise your eyebrows, nod, yes, it’s very similar, but there is one big difference.  You elaborate.  I hadn’t thought about that, but, sure, that’s a very big difference, all the difference in the world, really.  

You can learn something important when a distinction is illuminated like that.  This kind of conversation is a way of thinking back and forth, of collaboratively considering things and shedding light on some of the mysteries of this mysterious life.    

Most talks between us are not so much this way, they are quick, many unrelated things come and go, threads pop up and disappear, shorthand is substituted for consideration, we move on, time is fleeting, we gossip, we vent, we don’t linger to converse in the more thoughtful mode every day.

We can all remember specific conversations that were on a deeper level, that moved us, changed us even.   I recall one, during a bike ride with an old friend, when she told me something obvious and profound that I’d never thought of.  She put it succinctly, in a phrase, and it changed the way I saw things.  I had one, and only one, wonderfully deep, personal conversation with my otherwise fussy, distracted Aunt Barbara.  In the living room of my parents house, after everyone else had gone to sleep, the moments with her I value the most.

The desire for this kind of conversation is a big reason people love to read.   We have a dialogue, of a sort, with another mind, a mind who was driven to set things on paper, after combing them into the readable form we have in front of us.   I am reading a book like that now, a novel.   Full of what Zora Neale Hurston called “that oldest human longing”, the desire to reveal ourselves to another, to speak our deepest personal truths and be seen and heard as we really are.   Speaking is great, writing is a more refined version of speech.

This dialogue with the author is a big reason we read.  I knew nothing about Shoshana Zuboff except that she recently gave a few very interesting interviews about her mind-blowing book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.   I didn’t pick up the book because I wanted a dialogue with her specifically, the subject she wrote about was compelling to me.  It turns out she is not only a very perceptive and extremely well-read woman, she’s fucking brilliant, creative and extremely engaging.  

She reminded me of Hannah Arendt in the way her book was loaded with thought-provoking insights seemingly peripheral to her central idea. Of course, no insight is peripheral to anything, in the hands of a creative thinker and skilled writer.

Take this seemingly random peripheral insight from her book.   We in the West have long valued the idea of our own autonomy.   The principle that we alone, as individual moral actors, have the final say in what we think and do.   This idea, Shoshana Zuboff points out, is under great pressure now, in an age when systematically modifying our behavior, our choices, how we think and interact, is increasingly monetized by people who become billionaires by tracking our every impulse, particularly things like the desire to be accepted by others,  and directing these impulses toward personally targeted commerce.  

The ideal consumer is one who is not autonomous, driven by deeply held beliefs and a strong internal need to feel independent, but heteronomous.

Heteronomous?   What the fuck?

Shoshana Zuboff provides this great term as the opposite of autonomous.   Heteronomy is the external force, based on an overarching concept, that drives mass conformity.   This indispensable word is apparently a coinage of Immanuel Kant’s [1].  

Note: the digital technology that allows us to instantly search for and pull up information, opinion and historical (and ahistorical) details is a sharp double-edged sword, of course.  We are all very smart, in our information age, and capable, if we wish, of effortlessly fact-checking and quoting very accurately, when we have instant access to the world’s collected information.  We are not nearly as impressive when we have no cell reception and only memory and wit to rely on.   In this age anyone can tap in a quick search and come up with:

Heteronomy refers to action that is influenced by a force outside the individual, in other words the state or condition of being ruled, governed, or under the sway of another, as in a military occupation.

Immanuel Kant, drawing on Jean-Jacques Rousseau,[1] considered such an action nonmoral.[2][3]

It is the counter/opposite of autonomy.

Philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis contrasted heteronomy with autonomy by noting that while all societies create their own institutions (laws, traditions and behaviors), autonomous societies are those in which their members are aware of this fact, and explicitly self-institute (αυτο-νομούνται). In contrast, the members of heteronomous societies (hetero = others) attribute their imaginaries to some extra-social authority (e.g., God, the state, ancestors, historical necessity, etc.).[4]

source

 

The actions of a heteronomous person are driven not by an internal imperative to act based on a personal, individualized belief system, but by an external force.  The masters of the force that moves masses can make themselves all-powerful and wealthy beyond the dreams of the most wanton slaveholder who ever enjoyed the involuntary company of an endless parade of beautiful servant girls.

You get a notification and look into your cellphone screen to read a come on that a third party has sent to you.  Your smartphone, of course, has a camera with a sharp lens and you have, by clicking “accept” when downloading the app, already given permission for the app and any associated third parties to have access to that camera.   As you look at the come on, the camera captures your reactions.   A few revealing micro-expressions are taken and filtered through algorithms that tell the third party exactly what you are receptive to receiving as a follow-up.  Disgusted by the ad?   We are too!    We’ll send you the antidote!

In our surveillance age, privacy is sacrificed to “security” and convenience.   The genius of the world’s smartest man, Jeff Bezos, was implementing a system to exploit his keen understanding that by monetizing the laziness and poor impulse control of the average American consumer he could become the richest individual in human history.  

Shop, in the privacy of your home, in your underwear, for the specific things that will make you elegant, popular, the envy of your friends and enemies alike.  Pay an annual fee and become a preferred customer, you can receive this great stuff almost instantly.   They’re working on a way to have robots and drones get this stuff to you in virtual real time.   What a world!

As we enjoy the convenience of this cyber world we give up certain crucial thing.   Human interaction has been changed by the always-on social media machine that converts the world into a data-driven high school popularity contest. The need for face-to-face play, improvisation just for fun, one of the great joys of human life, has been largely replaced by virtual human contact. Virtual human contact that allows third parties to monetize and profit from our need to connect.

Just as the female calf on the industrial diary farm never experiences the play that all young mammals have always enjoy as they master a host of social skills, including the flirting that will lead to reproduction (these industrially raised young cows don’t need to learn anything, they’ll be artificially inseminated and give more milk than any naturally raised cow) [2] today’s teenagers are growing up in a less playful, far more precarious, world few of us could have imagined.   Except perhaps on our worst day in junior high school.

A world where everyone has a camera on them at all times, for better or worse.  Where, on a dare, or being flirtatious, at an age when people are searching for the acceptance of their peers, racy nude photos are taken, exchanged, live forever on servers in virtual clouds.   At the worst possible time in the life of a fifteen year-old girl a formerly trusted best friend reveals a vicious side, posts that photo of you with the dick against your dumbly grinning face.   Of all the things that goad adolescent suicide, a good public humiliation is high up there.  Another person’s shame can now be uploaded, instantly, on to the internet everybody carries in their pocket.  This is a new, devastating weapon everyone is aware of.

Shoshana Zuboff discusses the wariness that must be imparted to children in this world of eternal invasive, largely commercial, surveillance.  Be paranoid, they are collecting every private insight that can be gleaned, in order to “serve you more efficiently”.  They are modifying your behavior in real time, and the reach of their prying apps, in continually more refined ways.  You are a sucker if you trust anyone.  Do not make eye contact, hit “like” and LOL.

I saw an ad for what seems to be a wonderful project.  A search engine that spends its profits planting trees, they’ve already planted millions of trees in formerly denuded, lifeless landscapes. We can read all the devilish details of what amoral motherfuckers Google’s executives are. They also built the greatest internet mousetrap in history, you have to give them credit.  The proof of Google’s value, as they say, is in the pudding, they are richer than fuck, among the most successful companies in history.   That’s really all you need to know.  Hate success?  You hate freedom!  (talk about heteronomous logic)

The alternative search engine I saw the ad for, Ecosia, has a series of wonderful ads.  They plant trees to restore destroyed rain forests, reclaim arid new deserts, provide habitat to preserve some of the thousand of species that are becoming extinct every day.   You can download their free app.   Sounds like a total win-win.  Fuck google.  Let me support a company that is doing something proactive to save our planet from the rapacious extractionists who are, to put it crudely, raping our biosphere to death.  

Then I think:  this is exactly what they want, isn’t it?  Talk about building the ultimate mousetrap.

Download the free app, along with every other idealist in the radius of Ecosia’s advertising,  and they are on your computer, on your phone, in your home, in your head.   They now have your name, and your every preference, on a worldwide list of everybody who fancies herself an idealist, everyone who wants a better world.  Who do they have to wipe out first, if they are to finally have everything just before the earth breathes its last?   Me and you, baby, the people who are determined to fight the grim, determined, heteronomous armies of death.  

Another bracing thing Shoshana Zuboff details is how this justified paranoia has decreased human to human trust among Americans.   We also have less and less trust for institutions, norms, the fairness of justice.  We are right to be paranoid, as we are screwed left and right, in the name of abstract principles that serve only the monetizers at the top of the societal food chain.   Distrust has become a kind of default setting as we learn more and more about the details of how we are being systematically fucked and lied to about the nature of this nonconsensual arrangement.

One final thought about thinking.  We tend to think in words (feelings come in many tastes, smells, sounds, colors, etc.)  and so a word like anodyne, or heteronomy, is essential in forming certain thoughts.  Without the word neatly expressing and encompassing the larger concept, we’d have nothing to chew on, at least not in a way we can express.  Something to masticate.

 

 

[1] Kant, a world-changing philosopher, is reputed never to have traveled more that a short distance from where he was born.  Forty miles is the distance I recall hearing from a chatty professor in a philosophy class at City College around 40 years ago.   I did a search for what that distance actually was, using the newfangled internet.  That he never travelled more than 16 km. (9.9 miles) from his birthplace is apparently a crock:  

A common myth is that Kant never traveled more than 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) from Königsberg his whole life.[45] In fact, between 1750 and 1754 he worked as a tutor (Hauslehrer) in Judtschen[46] (now Veselovka, Russia, approximately 20 km) and in Groß-Arnsdorf[47] (now Jarnołtowo near Morąg (German: Mohrungen), Poland, approximately 145 km).   source

Ninety miles, bitches.  Don’t believe the hype.

 [2]  Thank you, Yuval Noah Harari, for the description of this animal right to play and socialize, unsentimentally sacrificed without a second thought by the industry that brings Americans their dairy and meat.

A few more words about Jane Mayer

This is an addition to my previous review of Jane Mayer’s impressive 2016 Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.

The shit hit the fan in America when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.   The Democratic president had both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court still had a “swing vote” [1].   Hope and Change were in the air after two terms of bungling, warring, tiny minority-enriching right wing rule that culminated in a massive fraud-driven economic crash.   It was a bleak time for the radical right, and their best and brightest got busy strategizing and putting their strategies into action.

After their victory in Citizens United, the cleverly argued case that legalized unlimited campaign-related spending as the protected speech of legal fictions now considered “persons”, Charles Koch and his network went into overdrive.   The secretive billionaire group funded the “grassroots” Tea Party making it possible for Americans to see continual, locally organized anti-Obama protests on television every evening from every corner of this gigantic nation.   There appeared to be a groundswell of spontaneous, united opposition to Obama, who was otherwise enjoying a 60% approval rating, but no matter.  The optics are key.

After putting Scott Brown into office, with a huge infusion of cash right before the interim election in Massachusetts to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, ending the Democrats ability to overcome a filibuster, Koch’s network got busy nationwide in the lead-up to the 2010 midterms.   In that election they spent over $137,000,000, gaining 63 seats in the House of Representatives and wresting control from the Democrats.  The massive spending also allowed Republicans to further eat into the Democrat’s Senate majority, where a bunch of the contested seats were flipped. Crucially, Republicans also picked up massive influence in state elections across the country, taking over a majority of state governments.   This last bit was crucial as electoral district lines were about to be redrawn after the 2010 Census.      

Democracy was not necessarily going to be the long-term solution for the Koch network and their unpopular ideas, but this kind of unprecedented national electoral victory was intoxicating.   Unlimited “dark money” changed the game.  Few candidates could survive being massively outspent by an opponent who could constantly air effective attack ads right up to election day.  

Not much was known about the roots of powerful advocacy groups like Americans for Prosperity and many other interlocking right wing foundations, think tanks and non-profits set up by the Kochtopus until investigative journalist Jane Mayer and her colleagues began researching the players and their connections.   She wrote a long 2010 piece in the New Yorker that infuriated Charles and David Koch and their friends.   Mayer had previously written about the billionaire funder of liberal causes George Soros, whose foundation, the Open Society Institute, spends up to a hundred million dollars a year on its causes.   Soros, unlike the Kochs, had agreed to be interviewed for Mayer’s article.  He accepted the unflattering things about about him and his influence machine in the piece without protest.  David Koch went wild when he read Mayer’s article about his family business.  

Koch complained in a four page letter to the New Yorker about the unfair portrayal of his “covert operations,” insisting there was nothing secret about his well-funded and extensive network of political influence, without citing any factual  inaccuracies in the article.  Koch then gave an interview during which he called Mayer’s New Yorker piece “hateful, ludicrous and just plain wrong”.  [2]   Not long after Koch made those comments, a smear campaign was underway to discredit Jane Mayer, featuring e-mailed threats and ultimatums, private investigators and an opposition research staff.  

They didn’t find much they could use, but trumped up a “plagiarism” case against her that was posted briefly on-line, before it was taken off-line, probably to avoid litigation over the attempted libel.   The plagiarism case was extremely thin, with four insubstantial paragraphs cited (from a long career at the New Yorker.)  Two of the four citations contained attributions to the people she was allegedly plagiarizing.     The Kochtopus, not directly implicated in the smear campaign because — why would they be? — didn’t succeed in destroying Jane Mayer or her reputation, but not for lack of trying.  Fortunately, they also didn’t succeed in shutting her up.

In January 2016 her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right came out.   It is a hell of a book, an important story that should be widely discussed as we are locked in this vicious zero-sum fight between the facts (and truth) and endless spin (and powerful lies).   Who are you going to believe, a bunch of hysterical climate scientists claiming that our escalating global climate catastrophes are somehow related to man’s heedless pollution of earth, sky and water, or two of the richest men in America who make their money dirtily extracting a highly toxic, and very lucrative, natural resource, while defending liberty?

Integral to the radical right’s position in the “post-factual” fight is sewing skepticism, doubt, outrage about things that are otherwise indisputable.   We see this in the right’s pre-emptive dismissal of the mainstream media, well-researched, carefully vetted work of honest American journalists is now reduced, for the simple minded, to traitorous “fake news,” the hateful spewing of “enemies of the American people.”   Bizzarro world, my friends.

Take a look at how the two sides of this debate are stacked up, and how unlimited money (“speech”) among a tiny group of super-wealthy anti-government radicals makes for slaughter sides.   Tell me which side is the more deadly enemy of the American people.

 

 

[1] albeit a swing vote who voted with the right in Citizens United, actually writing the partisan majority opinion.

[2]  David Koch, a world-class philanthropist, is not always so self-righteously pissed off.   As Jane Mayer writes in her 2010 article, and in Dark Money, he is also capable of world-class self-deprecation:

David Koch joked about his good fortune in a 2003 speech to alumni at Deerfield, where, after pledging twenty-five million dollars, he was made the school’s sole “lifetime trustee.” He said, “You might ask: How does David Koch happen to have the wealth to be so generous? Well, let me tell you a story. It all started when I was a little boy. One day, my father gave me an apple. I soon sold it for five dollars and bought two apples and sold them for ten. Then I bought four apples and sold them for twenty. Well, this went on day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, until my father died and left me three hundred million dollars!”

 

Book review preview: Dark Money by Jane Mayer

(my first book review since elementary school:)

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right,  Jane Mayer (January 2016)

Dark money is tax deductible, it turns out.  If you anonymously contribute a very large sum of money to a political cause, funneling the cash through a non-profit 501(c)4 corporation, in the worst case scenario you get a gigantic tax deduction against your income.  If you advance your political agenda with a skillful bet on the right politicians, you can reap an even higher return on your tax deductible investment. Win-win, if you know what I’m sayin’.

It is hard to empathize with somebody you will never share an experience with.   Being born into generations of vast, inherited, well-invested wealth means you have no need to ever make contact with the great unwashed, heading home in crowded subway cars with their grubby little problems.   The world of the super-wealthy, the top 0.01%, is hard for the rest of us to picture.  It is apparently also very, very challenging to be that rich in ways the rest of us cannot begin to imagine.  

Some indomitable men in this tiny group of the very richest, very best American families, led by the secretive Charles Koch, autocratic son of a founding John Birch Society member, realized that in order to eventually own literally everything in America, without interference from parasites of every stripe, they would need to control the government that was trying to put tyrannical limits on their freedom.   Charles Koch’s wealth, now highly diversified, was originally, and mainly, from oil refining.  His father had developed a process for refining the cheapest, dirtiest, source, the most energy intensive to extract, and selling the finished product for much higher profit than their competitors could.   The EPA, in particular, was a bone in the reclusive billionaire’s throat.   Government regulation was the only thing standing in the way of virtually unlimited profits for Koch Industries.

It would take thirty or more years for Charles Koch’s radical agenda to yield a bumper crop (The Year of Trump), but the beneficiaries would be very happy with the results and well-reimbursed for their tax deductible political spending over the decades.  Look at what they’ve already achieved: abolishing profit-killing “environmental” and “safety” regulations,  limiting the size of, and trust in, a government of severely limited powers, decimating labor unions, “primarying” all moderates out of office and out of politics, ending ‘class warfare’ with a decided flourish, redistributing wealth steeply upward to themselves.  Along the way they crafted and sold a larger, widely accepted public narrative that justifies all this as right and proper, even highly moral and exceptionally American.  It isn’t that all this pollution is doing anything bad to the environment, you understand, fellow sophisticated climate change skeptics, it’s a conspiracy by rich liberal eco-hypocrites to kill jobs using fake science to do so.

Dark Money, by the  great Jane Mayer, pulls together a million details of how and what this tiny, infinitely wealthy group did to ensure that their privilege is preserved in perpetuity.  Mayer details the more than thirty year strategic campaign, mucho, mucho dinero very productively spent in a brilliant, deliberate, coordinated, disciplined long game of lobbying, swaying public perceptions and spending fortunes to put people in power who would advance their cause.  This largely successful campaign to bypass electoral democracy and take control of the government directly, by other means, is finally paying off big time.   All perfectly legal, these extraordinary means, the Supreme Court said so in a series of indisputable 5-4 decisions.   Extra-democratically grabbing power makes it sound so harsh, so dirty, almost fascistic, like a tiny, secretive clique imposing their will on the other 99.9%.   Let us simply say, these intrepid protectors of the 0.01% deployed their oceans of money very wisely.    

A lot of the world Jane Mayer lays out is sickening stuff, but, damn does she lay it all out.  It is one skill to be a good researcher, to dig up and read everything and to find and master a lot of interesting, complicated material, selecting and organizing the most crucial of it.  Being able to weave the raw materials into a flowing, compelling narrative is another skill entirely.   Reading a book like Dark Money it hits me over and over — this writer is really fucking smart.  I think it’s the sense that, in addition to the book being beautifully written, everything you are reading has been set so perfectly in context by everything you’ve learned to that point in the story.  It is an immensely complicated, yet, on another level, elementally simple, story.  Jane Mayer tells it clearly, smoothly and with virtually no editorializing.  I offer this example, as a placeholder for a more detailed review I will complete at a future time.

Mayer describes the great revelation Charles Koch and his friends had, along with a major change of strategy, after David Koch badly lost his vice-presidential bid in 1980.   Since Koch ran for vice president, rather than president, he could use a loophole in the law to legally finance his campaign with as much of his own unlimited cash as he chose to spend.  One of the planks of his vice presidential platform was abolishing all limits on campaign spending, (which is now the law of the land via the partisan 5-4 Citizens United ruling).   When the Koch platform, skewed toward the freedom of the wealthiest to acquire more while shrinking oppressive government and its socialistic programs to insignificance,  got less than 1% of the vote (ironic– he probably drew 100% of the top 1% vote) the Koch brothers [1] (along with their allies from the best of the top 0.01%) understood that their ideas were too unpopular to ever prevail by electoral means.  

They began to set about influencing public discourse by different means.  They drew up a long-term battle plan, with the help of a cunning graduate student named Fink.  They created a network of influence and public relations operations. They funded prestigious think tanks, numerous non-profits, endowed academic chairs, sponsored courses and student societies in the colleges across America, eventually found their way onto Ivy League campuses (to correct the distressing left-leaning tendency of these influential institutions), unleashed an army of lobbyists, paid advocates, psychological warfare experts like wordsmith-for-hire Frank Luntz (attack Global Warming “myth” by attacking the non-unanimous scientific consensus [2] — Luntz later recanted this bullshit).   They advised political candidates, funded their campaigns, took over state houses, got odious laws and regulations overturned, drafted model laws in corporate/legislative partnerships that advanced their cause, vetted Supreme Court picks, created and funded non-profits for specific political attacks, like the Swift Boat Attackers, funded the ‘grassroots’ radically anti-Obama Tea Party, and so on.  36 years of hard, dedicated, singleminded work later, et, voila!

Fred Koch, father of all of four battling Koch brothers, like Fred Trump, father of our current president, was a brutal, demanding, loveless autocrat and an admirer of Mr. Hitler who shared many of Hitler’s views on how things should run and who deserved to rule.  Fred Koch performed a heroic, well-paid service for the Fuhrer before the war, building a high tech oil refinery in Germany that ensured  the luftwaffe would have a ready supply of high octane petrol for years to come.   Fred Koch hired a German Nazi nanny (literally, she adored the Fuhrer) to strictly discipline the young Koch boys.   She was apparently very severe in her methods while she was the primary caretaker of the boys for the long stretches when the parents were away.   The nanny proudly returned to the Fatherland after the fall of France.   Talk about Nazi bastards, these boys come by it honestly.

I will amend this review a bit when I am done listening to the book.  It is hard to stop listening to the well-read audio version I have on my listening device.  I’ve already made dozens of notes.  

If we have any hope of fighting back against the monsters now in seemingly locked-down control, a book like this provides essential knowledge we need for understanding the fight ahead.

I highly recommend Dark Money.  Good reading on a subject even more vital to know about now than when she released it in early 2016.   Goddamned good work, Jane, and another very important book (The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Idealsabout Cheney’s torture program, is another, also highly recommended) that deserves to be widely read and talked about.

 

[1]  A Note on the “Koch Brothers”

The until recently secretive right-wing billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch are known as The Koch Brothers.   Their oldest brother, Freddie, was cut out of the picture years ago after an ugly family power play, featuring an attempt at blackmail by his other three brothers.   David Koch’s twin brother, Bill Koch, after decades of savage litigation against his brothers Charles and David, and some chicanery written into their demented mother’s will, finally signed a non-disparagement agreement with Charles and David, formally ending their long, bitter legal wars.  A family of goddamned princes, really.  Of these four brothers, only two have become “The Koch Brothers.”  You could argue that no two brothers have ever had a larger say in the public life of their country.

 

{2]  Mayer writes:

In a 2002 memo, the Republican political consultant Frank Luntz wrote that so long as “voters believe there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community” the status quo would prevail. The key for opponents of environmental reform, he said, was to question the science—a public-relations strategy that the tobacco industry used effectively for years to forestall regulation. The Kochs have funded many sources of environmental skepticism, such as the Heritage Foundation, which has argued that “scientific facts gathered in the past 10 years do not support the notion of catastrophic human-made warming.”