ET TU AMERICA?

Jan 24, 2018 by

 JOE COSTELLO

Et Tu America?

“It is true that the history of past centuries ought to be the instructress of the present; but not in the vulgar sense, as if one could simply by turning over the leaves discover the conjunctures of the present in the records of the past, and collect from these the symptoms for a political diagnosis and the specifics for a prescription; it is instructive only so far as the observation of older forms of culture reveals the organic conditions of civilization generally–the fundamental forces everywhere alike, and the manner of their combination everywhere different–and leads and encourages men, not to unreflecting imitation, but to independent reproduction. In this sense the history of Caesar and of Roman Imperialism, with all the unsurpassed greatness of the master-worker, with all the historical necessity of the work, is in truth a sharper censure of modern autocracy than could be written by the hand of man. According to the same law of nature in virtue of which the smallest organism infinitely surpasses the most artistic machine, every constitution however defective which gives play to the free self-determination of a majority of citizens infinitely surpasses the most brilliant and humane absolutism; for the former is capable of development and therefore living, the latter is what it is and therefore dead.”
– Theodor Mommsen, The History of Rome, 1854

For the contemporary American mind, history has no place, no value. After two centuries of rapid and incessant technological change, an undefined and never quite graspable future rose as mystical lodestone. The past quickly receded from memory, occasionally recounted for amusement, though mostly invoked only for damnation. Nothing valuable was to be learned from the past. This has proved unfortunate as many of our old institutions and processes, particularly those of politics, fail. Many of these failings are not new, they have regularly visited humanity across history, cultures, and civilizations.

Despite our self-deception of being unique and exceptional, we are, in part, simply the latest incarnation of a millennia old Western civilization, with strong Greco-Roman roots – most essentially in our politics, our system of republican democracy. Historically, democracy is exceptional, an anomaly as historian Gore Vidal use to say. Thus it’s of no surprise, except to the contemporary American mind, that failings of past republics might offer lessons for some of the problems besetting us today. Mommsen rightly decried any notion of cookie-cutter history, however he wouldn’t at all be surprised by the familiar democratic diseases of the old Roman republic now afflicting her American progeny.

If today, Brutus and Caesar were to walk Washington’s corridors of power, many things would be strikingly familiar. Two key maladies of the body politic would be recognized instantly. One would be the growing debilitation of our domestic democratic processes instigated by never-ending global military misadventures. The second would be the increasing centralization of economic power, a grotesquely obscene concentration of wealth incompatible with and over time destructive of any established system of republican democracy.

Though founded almost two-thousand years after the fall of the Roman republic, the US, like Rome at its founding, was an agrarian, a farming economy. Like their Roman forebears, the vast majority of the US population were yeoman farmers. Economic power was largely distributed, giving the enfranchised the economic power necessary to truly be citizens.

However, unsuspected by most of the American founding generation, and unlike Rome, they were in the midst of an unprecedented technological revolution, industrialization, that would entirely change the economy, though funnily, or not so funny, not at all the established institutions of government. Industrialization’s impact on American politics is due its own volumes and mentioned here simply to acknowledge the great part it played in the centralization of 19th and 20th century political economy.

However, a process intimately known to the Romans was the evolution, by military means, of its small yeoman farmer city-republic into an unchallenged power across the entire Mediterranean, resulting in an unprecedented concentration of wealth. Similar, though not as fast as the US republic’s expansion, which from its founding clinging to the western shores of the Atlantic, grew to the largest global military power in history. After the republic’s fall, Rome’s Mediterranean dominance would continue another four centuries, however it looks increasingly doubtful US global might will make it a century, and if we are to restore and evolve the American system of self-government it can’t.

With the growth of Roman military power across the Mediterranean, economic power became increasingly concentrated. The old independent yeoman farms were merged into sprawling slave plantations. Shorn of their economic power, the enfranchised citizenry moved from the fields into the city’s ever expanding urban squalor, living off subsidized housing and free grain from the plains of North Africa, while being ever more occupied by various entertainments provided by the neo-optimates of concentrated wealth. Votes became the main currency of the economically disenfranchised.

One hundred seventy five years ago, Mommsen described Rome’s political economy evolution, he might as well be talking about today’s America:

“The warfare, which from the third onward to the fifth century(200BC-50BC) capital had waged against labour, by withdrawing under the form of interest on debt the revenues of the soil from the working farmers and bringing them into the hands of the idly consuming fund holder, had been settled chiefly by the extension of the Roman economy and the throwing of the capital which existed in Latium into the field of mercantile activity opened up throughout the range of the Mediterranean.”

Over the last four decades, America’s citizenry fell into ever greater perpetual debt, subsidized by “cheap” imports provided by capital exported from the US across the globe. Living off the interest of an indebted citizenry, a new class of “fund holders” developed, our neo-optimates, who claim they are “doing god’s work.”

The economic subjugation of the Roman citizenry brought about a corrupt, dysfunctional politics in which money and bad political entertainment ruled. The political cast was an array of duplicitous characters, all guilty of conducting the various crimes they vociferously accused their opponents. But in the end, it would be republic’s own legendary legions delivering the death blow.

Caesar would march his legions on Rome and write his name in history, taking the title of dictator perpetuto and ending the republic after four and half centuries. Unlike our ahistoric selves, the founders of America’s republic were well familiar with Rome’s republican fall and unanimously warned of the danger of a permanent and professional military. Today, a march of troops upon DC seems somewhat remote, yet something just as insidious is occurring, the inevitable politicization of the modern information and communication institutions of the National Security State – CIA, NSA, FBI, DHS, FISA Court et al.. They have grown to become as dangerous to the American republic’s future as Caesar’s legions were to Rome―as Mommsen deemed, the similarities of the “organic conditions of civilization” and their “fundamental forces.”

Certainly it’s been amusing, if you had the stomach, and how few do, to see the entire American political class lose an election to a rich ostentatious clown in an electoral atmosphere of a degenerate decrepit circus. A damning verdict delivered on the state of our politics. The political class was loath to accept such a verdict, after all, it was first and foremost a judgment rendered on their collective and individual value. Among the political class, the new president is certainly unexceptional in his narcissism. So, the bipartisan political class launched a scurrilous campaign conducted with the help of various organs of the National Security State and channels of the corporate media, attempting to pin this great failure of American politics on the quite impotent nation of post-Soviet Russia. All done with the intent of overthrowing the results of a presidential election. Mr. Trump isn’t leading any political decline, he’s the product of a now well established tradition.

The establishment coup’s ir-rationale could only gain any traction due to both the American public’s ignorance of the complete shambles Russia has become in the past 25 years and, despite a well established record of falsehoods and crimes across the histories of various organs of the National Security State, our still too often simple-minded acceptance of these organizations proclamations.

Former spook Ray McGovern has a nice article looking at various threads put forth on Russian culpability, all of them falling well short of crossing the high-tide mark of Maryland’s shores. As McGovern states about the various findings, “Although accepted in Establishment groupthink as revealed truth, that poor excuse for analysis reflected the apogee of intelligence politicization ― rivaled only by the fraudulent intelligence on ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in Iraq 15 years ago.”

And yes in decades preceding the Iraq debacle, these same “intelligence” institutions have compiled an overwhelming record of failure and deception. Today, they claim discovery of a Russian conspiracy, yet 25 years ago missed the fall of the Soviet Union, 15 years before that the fall of the Shah – America’s CIA installed client in Iran, and the following year’s Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, responding with their decade long debacle of arming jihadhi groups. The list is endless, embarrassing and should cause at the very least skepticism of each and every agencies’ pronouncements.

Stansfield Turner died last week.  Mr. Turner was CIA director under Jimmy Carter. Turner came to head the agency after Watergate revealed the constant failures of the intelligence service – bloodshed, domestic spying, a continual habit of ridiculously believing and acting on their own propaganda, and election tampering. Not wanting to be changed, the agency ran a “disinformation” campaign against their new Director. “One of their basic skills,” the former Admiral noted. Twenty-five years after his tenure, Turner amusingly stated the agency should be broken-up, not just for the good of the republic, but for the good of “the professionals in the agency as well.”

Of course that didn’t happen, instead they’ve grown more powerful including openly advocating and conducting torture, and now openly challenging a presidential election, with our elected officials cowering in complicity and culpability. 2018’s profile in courage Chuck Schumer, who some inexplicably want to see leading the Senate, stated last year Trump was “being really dumb” taking on the intelligence agencies, “Let me tell you, you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.” Unbalanced and unchecked power, the most fatal affliction of any republic.

So, while Caesar used his actual troops to quash the republic, we are witnessing an information and communication infrastructure created through global military power threaten an increasingly weak and dysfunctional democratic system. It now becomes a question of whether the American people will seek to reform their politics, government, and economy or simply allow it to continue on its perilous course.

To change course, we citizens, we the people, will have to aggressively engage politics, evolving and reforming its processes and institutions. We can start by bringing troops home from around the world and dismantling the dangerous and incompetent institutions of the National Security State. Simultaneously, we need to redistribute the great concentration of wealth so people have the ability to be citizens. Reforming and evolving our democracy isn’t going to be done in one or two election cycles. As Mommsen understood, for self-government to thrive, it must be treated as a living, constantly evolving organism. Or as Jefferson wrote several decades before Mommsen,

“Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

Download Joe Costello’s “The Politics of Technology

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