Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Is America really Pakistan?

While our president was going around last May making nice about all those Arab revolutionaries bringing their governments down, guess what the Pentagon was up to? According to closely reasoned and evidenced reporting from Nick Turse at TomDispatch,
[a]s state security forces across the region cracked down on democratic dissent, the Pentagon also repeatedly dispatched American troops on training missions to allied militaries there.  During more than 40 such operations with names like Eager Lion and Friendship Two that sometimes lasted for weeks or months at a time, they taught Middle Eastern security forces the finer points of counterinsurgency, small unit tactics, intelligence gathering, and information operations -- skills crucial to defeating popular uprisings...
Now, what exactly is up with that? Should we be applying our standard left-paranoid analysis to this? I.e., (1) the interests of our ruling class, the 1% if you like, are aligned with those of the familiar dictators Ben Ali and Mubarak and so on; (2) the U.S. government, as the "management committee of the bourgeoisie" or agency for carrying out ruling class interests, inevitably opposes the democratic revolutions; and (3) Obama does his job of expressing the natural pro-revolutionary sentiments of the 99% to distract us from what is really happening.

But I'd like to sketch out an alternative way of looking at it that might be a little less boring and a little smarter, and still "of the left"--and indeed the seeds of a whole bigfat theory of democracy and power.

Benevolent dictator Wotan figures it out: God can't give people free will, they have to take it. But won't that make trouble for the government? Hey, kid, why do you think they call it Götterdämmerung?
We habitually distinguish dictatorship from democracy in a categorical way, as opposed ways of handling the question of how power is distributed in a society, just as gills and lungs are opposed ways of handling the question of how an animal gets oxygen; but we could just as easily think of them as idealized, simplified models of a reality that is always far more complicated and confused.

A dictator, in the first place, hardly has absolute power. He depends on the loyalty of thugs to keep him in position, and in that sense the thugs have power over him; they may violate the dictator's laws with something like impunity (think of all the "degenerates" in the Nazis' ruling circles that Hitler helplessly had to put up with), and they may make law independently of the dictator's desires, personally running a neighborhood, a trade or or social or religious organization, a business like drug sales or gambling or for that matter television or farming, without the Big Man's permission. But the dictator must pretend that all things either take place with his approval or do not take place at all--otherwise his own power will be questioned.

A democracy, en revanche, has its own thugs, organized for better or worse, even organized into political parties. Rather than thinking of power as belonging to "The People" as if they were some kind of unitary voice--as if!--it would be wise to think of it as distributed among myriad agencies and apparatuses, Foucault's dispositifs du pouvoir, and to think of those agencies as democratic that make their decisions by talking about the problem, in a relatively open way. But power is still exercised, and John Boehner, say, has to pretend that all the counterproductive idiocies of the House Republicans are done with his approval, or everyone will say he is weak (alas poor Boehner, we do anyway).

It has long struck me, thinking about Pakistan, most recently in the aftermath of the Osama assassination or whatever it was, that it would be very helpful to think about it in this way: that it's dumb, I mean, to worry about whether "Pakistan" supports terrorists in India or Afghanistan or its own ungovernable northwestern territories or its military cantonments--this is a description that might apply to A Democracy or A Dictatorship if such a place existed, but inappropriate to a real situation. The correct thing to worry about would be the total mysteriousness of how power in Pakistan is distributed: who if anyone obeys whom in the quartet of president and prime minister and army chief and ISI chief, and how much do their respective thugs obey them. It is obviously possible for Osama bin Laden to be holed up in Abbottabad without the president having the least idea of it; less likely, no doubt, for the ISI chief not to know, but hardly inconceivable. Faced with incontrovertible evidence that he should have know but didn't, however, he might well claim that he did. He's a Big Man too.

Now, what about Obama and the Pentagon? There are certainly religion thugs in the Air Force, exerting clearly illegal but apparently unstoppable power over nontheist underlings; there are clearly oil thugs in the CIA, making deals with local autocrats that are not in the country's interests; there must be some kind of Privatization thugs in the state department in particular, hiring mercenaries instead of the traditional Marines to take care of their security. Are there oil thugs or Likud or Persophobe thugs training Arab dictators to put down democratic movements? If there are, it will be very difficult for Obama to say he didn't know about it. "OMG," they'll say, "another weak Democrat president!"

And he is, too, but I think at heart he is weak on our side, not theirs, and that, given the iffiness of democracy as a concept and our democracy in particular, is maybe the best we can do.

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