Capitalism, Hegemony and Violence in the Age of Drones by Norman Pollack (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). Pp. x, 483. ISBN 978-3-319-64887-3 DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-64888-0. eBook ISBN 978-3-319-64888-0. Hardcover $189.00 eBook $149.00.
Reviewed by Geoffrey R Skoll
The author, Norman Pollack (b. 1933) was an academic historian. He died June 11, 2017. His specialty was the populism of the late nineteenth to early twentieth century United States, not the current obscene distortions. The present book is not for the specialist or the academic, although they are welcome to read it. This book is written for the lettered reader, the adults of today who have been educated. The readership, perforce, is shrinking even as I write this review. Education is in bad repute along with democracy—again, the real stuff, not the sham theater of twenty-first century America. Indeed, it is that very transformation that is the subject of Pollack’s critique.
He focuses on the years of the Obama presidency, but of course he includes many historical allusions and comparisons. One of his extensive comparisons is to early twentieth century Japan as that country slid into fascism. The comparison could not be more fitting, as the thematic argument is that the United States today is fascist.
The style of the book differs from most contemporary learned writing. For one thing, Pollack eschews footnotes as he says the educated reader should not need them, and uneducated readers would not understand anyway even if the book contained tens of thousands of footnotes. I agree. Rather than a singular argument buttressed by evidence, and sub-arguments, corollaries, parallelisms, and all the accoutrements of academic logics, the book is more like an extended conversation in which Pollack sits down with the readers and lets them see the workings of his mind. It is well worth the intellectual journey. Therefore, rather than go through the book chapter by chapter, I will highlight his main ideas. I hope I can summarize them correctly. Then I offer my own commentary and invite readers to judge for themselves.
“Fascism in America, in whatever gestational stage, makes headway knowing this ingrained bias against the people, shared by the people themselves” (p. 70). In Pollack’s light, fascism is more than a historically temporary political arrangement as in Germany, Italy, Japan, and other countries between the world wars. Fascism is a general social state.
Fascism does not require the concentration camp, persecution, or torture, although their threat and potential remain present always . . . . Rather, fascism can be apprehended through a number of indices: for example, extreme wealth concentration; business-government co-partnership, as a structural interpenetration of powerful institutions that promotes monopoly capital , restricts union organization and labor militancy, and creates a strong State predicated on military power and trade supremacy; also encouragement of a compliant, complacent mass base, deferential to power and wealth, tied in ideological knots through both false consciousness and intimidation, intellectually broken through media, propaganda, and signals from above. 125
Is this not the United States in the first decades of the twenty-first century? But of course, the United States does have concentration camps. It has so-called detention centers holding a secret number of people, run by private businesses, and rationalized by official pronouncements of their so-called illegal residency status. It has well over three million people locked up in prisons and jails, almost half of whom are Black, and almost all impoverished. Official propaganda demonizes a racialized religious minority labeled as Muslim. Google, Boeing, Ratheon, huge banks, and insurance companies enjoy much the same status as state apparatuses such as the military-intelligence octopus that surveilles all, and carries out covert (read as deniable) operations to overthrow governments around the world. These state-private entities include torture as part of their everyday panoply. Those who attend to what some call mainstream media, others corporate media, bought media, or less affectionately, bull shit media, are treated to a never ending stream of fake news, buried news, CIA-directed Hollywood movies, and all the various instruments of public relations (now almost a century old) campaigns all in the service of the business-state apparatus that molds public awareness as if it were silly putty.
Pollack argues that the New Deal was the exception. Before it, the US political economy tended toward the oligarchic “accompanied by an unrelieved suppression of working people, the Great Railroad Strikes to Haymarket, Homestead, and the Pullman. After the death of FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) in April 1945, what ensued was “A gradually closing regimentation of views accepted the permanence of an hierarchical societal framework of class, wealth, and power, all clothed in patriotic ardor” (26). Despite the gradual trend, the New Deal had also fostered a generation that demanded that US society live of up to its claims, enunciated by FDR in his Four Freedoms speech of 1941. As a consequence, young people spearheaded the liberation and anti-war movements of the 1960s. The US oligarchy woke up to the fact that their privilege was, as Lewis Powell put it in his infamous 1971 memo, “under attack.” The oligarchy fought back. The result was that ”By at least the 1970s, America exhibited a downward trajectory in its historical development, the product of a global counterrevolutionary posture at the heart . . .” (25)
By the twenty-first century their efforts has succeeded. There are no more liberation movements. Women’s liberation has devolved into #MeToo in which movie stars complain that they were exploited by men who led an exploitive profession. Black liberation devolved into support for that consummate political manipulator in the Chicago tradition of ‘Don’t make no waves; don’t back no losers,’ and whom Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report called “the most effective evil.” At the same time the once promising movement of #Black Lives Matters has been coopted for Black banking and other petty bourgeois business endeavors—an effort of the kind E. Franklin Frazier presciently eviscerated in his 1957 book, Black Bourgeoisie.
Militarism, Imperialism, and the Police State
Drones epitomize, encapsulate, and symbolize the current fascist condition. “Here warfare mirrors the assumptions of the alienated society from which it comes” (329). Drones enable the military-intelligence apparatus to rain death and destruction remotely anywhere in the world. Based on dubious, not to mention illegal and inhuman, tactics of identifying so-called terrorists or militants, the US killing machine attacks wedding parties, funerals, and kills children more often than not.
As one contemplates the contours and thrust of American foreign policy, its embedment in the foundations of US capitalist development becomes crystal clear. It is as though, foremost, the identicalness of America and capitalism is confirmed by the historical record, so that systemic imperatives—absent any hint of determinism per se—shape decision-making within narrowly structural-ideological boundaries. A system is no longer a system, no longer able to reproduce its basic characteristics, unless its composite leadership, political, economic, and so on, are able to reinforce what is already the product of its historical-cultural developmental properties themselves created through human intervention. (413)
In this fascist project, the US public has remained supine. Of course by the writing of Pollack’s book, any hint of mass protest and refusal is met with a fully militarized police force throughout the country. Anything like the uprisings of the 1960s, culminating arguably in the 1968 Democratic National Convention police riot in Chicago, have become unthinkable. But today, however quixotic such uprising might be, there is no such burning public spirit. The US populace is compliant as they trudge through Gestapo-like searches to travel around the country, or even as of March 2018, to take trains in New York and Los Angeles where intra-urban passengers must pass through electronic strip searches under the watchful if ignorant eyes of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) oafish enforcers.
The US military attacks and invades, murders by drones, occupies foreign countries, creates and supports terrorist guerrilla forces like ISIS all around the world. It oppresses and surveilles its own domestic populace. It does all this in the service, not of nationalist aggrandizement, but in the service of global capital. Its eager assistants, led by the Anglophone world of Australia, Britain, Canada, and New Zealand (the Five Eyes in intelligence parlance), but they are joined by other centers of global capital in France, Germany, and Japan.
The shadow of fascism has not fallen over just the United Sates, but its penumbra encompasses all those nations harboring centers of capital. The new Right (or old fascists) in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, and so on join the United States in promoting the not so new Nazis in the Ukraine. It does not matter where, because the interests of capital and the global ruling class must be served by every state apparatus.
Commentary: the Re-emergence of Fascism and the Crisis of Capitalism
Pollack’s main interest is in describing the conditions of the United States and how they came to be. His national focus means that he does not address its more global manifestations. If he did, the book would have to be at least twice as long. I will take the opportunity to expand his argument, as he was unable to do so only because death intervened.
In one respect the world today resembles the period between the wars when fascism arose throughout Europe. The underlying cause is the same: a crisis in capitalism. Moreover, the crisis stems from the same condition: a falling rate of profit due to capital accumulation, especially in the form of fictitious capital, and an organic composition of capital in which production relies increasingly on machines that replace human labor. The result is that the value of production declines, and with that decline profits dip. The same condition of the early twentieth century required two world wars and the world wide Great Depression to correct. What ensued was a so-called golden age that lasted about 25 years after the Second World War. The wars and depression destroyed capital. Achieving a similar destruction of capital, this time on a more global scale, could well require not just destruction of capital, but much of human civilization. One need only recall how the Second World War ended.
Although some commentators speak of an American Empire, it is more accurate to say that the United States is the chief executive organization for the world empire of capital. Despite its global reach, the world system of capital is made up of national political economies. The main centers of capital are in the West, which should not be understood geographically but politically and socially such that for example Japan is part of the Western Bloc of capitol. Other regions—Africa, East Indies and southwestern Pacific, and Latin America are dependencies of the Western Bloc. China and, to a lesser extent Russia, contest US hegemony. Currently the Middle East and North Africa regions remain an area of conflict as the Western Bloc seeks greater control because of the region’s geopolitical importance. To maintain its hegemonic position and to try to control China and Russia, the United States relies heavily on military force both directly and indirectly. Sustaining its preeminent position means, inter alia, keeping at least a thousand military bases throughout the world. To support its forceful hegemony, the United States impoverishes most of its populace, excluding the few thousand people who have most of the wealth and control all the capital.
In addition to military force, the Western Bloc uses two strategies: propping up authoritarian, comprador regimes and destabilizing states that do or potentially could follow and independent policy. These two strategies are both at work in Latin America. The southern cone—Argentina, Brazil, and Chile—fall into the former strategy, although it was only recently through so-called constitutional coups that Argentina and Brazil joined to authoritarian camp. In Central America and the trio of South American countries—Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela—the United States uses the destabilization strategy. The most extreme example of destabilization is currently used in Syria where the West created several competing anti-government guerrilla forces and has even invaded and occupied a part of Syria. Both strategies foster increasing world chaos and as a concomitant to the chaos, encourage fascism. US fascism has joined European fascism, and in Japan there is a clear return to fascistic element, especially militarism, to support Western Bloc efforts to control China. In sum, Pollack’s attribution of fascism in the United States is part of a global trend.