Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Ideology and ruling class crime.

"Ideology", says Lila Rajiva, "prevents the citizens of the state from recognising its violence and allows the state to rewrite the general terrorising of a population through detentions and torture as the inevitable and just operation of law." That's in her excellent book The Language of Empire, an examination of American state violence and political culture in light of Abu Ghraib. The ideology, in Rajiva's account, derives from the myth of Prometheus, America as a rebel taking on the international political and legal establishment lodged atop Mount Olympus. America stealing fire from the world powers to give to the powerless, those states with weak capacity. This myth doesn't so much conceal as provide a semi-coherent story to account for a global system of bribery, coercion, dependency and corruption.

The empire prefers weak states, of course, dictatorships with few of the traditional capacities of modern bureaucratic nation-states, ones that are bought off by the IMF, World Bank, DEA and CIA, ones with weak legitimacy and little accountability to the domestic populace. Hence, you help a general to power in Indonesia, let him butcher a million people, carve up the economy in private sessions with leading multi-national CEOs, encourage the general's family to skim billions off the top of 'development' loans based on exorbitant estimates for construction plans that go nowhere. Even if the CIA or MI6 didn't put you in power, once you take the money you start to factor it into the national and personal budgets, and your sovereignty is compromised. What's more, if you're obliged to integrate into the global economy on empire's terms (accepting neoliberal reforms etc), you have to devise an infrastructure adequate to the demands of investors - and once you're committed to that offer, it is rather difficult to pass and enforce laws restricting environmental or labour practises, or that curtail what would ordinarily be considered criminal behaviour. This logic inevitably extends back into the heart of empire. Having developed the institutions and techniques of covert criminality, one expects that these will acquire a weight of their own within the imperial centre. The CIA, for instance, routinely works to corrupt federal prosecutors and law enforcement agents where it must. Here is an instance of that. The coherence of the narrative of, say, the 'drugs war' would be seriously undermined if there were not laws that could actually apply to intelligence operatives and government officials. Yet, the state itself becomes an opportunity for enterprising individuals, such as coppers who wish to organise armed robberies and drug deals. Similarly, having worked to create business opportunities for domestic capitalist elites overseas, one doesn't stop relating to them domestically. Commercial spying is an aspect of most intelligence agencies' work, and those with experience in state sectors are highly prized assets in the private sector; the state sustains important sectors of capital (especially those associated with its imperial practises, ranging from high finance to semiconductor manufacturing) so that the process of state rule is integrated with the processes of capital accumulation. Now, often highlighting corruption is a means of preserving the furniture aboard the titanic, so that one misses that the system is at fault - but I am merely undertaking the marxist task of pointing out how corruption of this kind is in fact part of the imperial system, an aspect of the techniques of state rule. Of course small-time crooks getting in over their heads are sometimes excellent prophylactics: whether it's Richard Perle shaking down the sheikhs or John DeLorean making off with billions of dollars, the public lesson is that such corruption is an anomaly, rather than an integral part of the social fabric.

Every social system generates its own forms of ruling class crime, of course. The medieval landlords in Britain used to murder one another a great deal in the fifteenth century over disputed properties, and the crown was very reluctant to police these. Not only because justices of the peace were immensely available for corruption, but also because it was seen by state functionaries, most of whom themselves were drawn from the mercantile or landowning elite, as an unpardonable intrusion for the state to have something to say about the private matters of the ruling class. Modern capitalist states have to pay a lot more attention to securing consent, especially where there is a strong and politically sophisticated working class, and so they have hit on the happy thought that if you can sign people up to the overall project, however construed, you can get their acquiescence in almost anything that goes on within it, up to and including stasi-style secret prisons, ritual rape, torture, plunder and murder on an epic scale. Those groups will disavow what they know, ignore what they could know, and rationalise on your behalf. They will strike all the right propaganda notes for you, reaching audiences you might not be able to reach yourself (Rush Limbaugh reaches angry young men, while the Eustonites reach humanities-educated liberals). And then? Well, if you're busily applauding the extirpation of evil overseas, America's eighteen richest families can get you to pay them $71.6bn, and not notice that you lose out, and that the means they have used to get the cash would fall under most people's defintion of a criminal attempt to corrupt the political process.