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Anti-Capitalist Meetup: John Brennan, Barack Obama and the Banality of Evil in Service of Late Capitalist Imperialism by Le Gauchiste

12:54 pm in Uncategorized by Anti-Capitalist Meetup

“Some years ago, reporting the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem, I spoke of ‘the Banality of evil’ and meant with this … the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology or ideological conviction in the doer, whose only personal distinction was a perhaps extraordinary shallowness…., and the only specific characteristic one could detect on his part as well as in his behavior … was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.”

–Hannah Arendt

Whether political theorist Hannah Arendt was correct in her assessment of Adolf Eichmann–and I am inclined to believe she was duped by his testimony in Jerusalem and hence overstated the extent to which he was an example of the banality of evil–she was onto something important with the concept. For while the idea of the banality of evil may have become at times a cliche and, far worse, a facile evasion of moral responsibility, it nonetheless provides a way to understand how Late Capitalism’s Imperialism creates conditions that necessitate self-alienation on the part of the individual as well the social formation as a whole.

Torture doesn’t matter anymore, at least not to the Barack Obama administration. Four years ago, John Brennan, a 25-year veteran of the CIA, was forced to withdraw his name from consideration to be CIA Director (DCI) because of his public support of–and likely participation in–the Bush administration’s programs of torturing terrorism suspects and/or sending them to foreign prisons to be tortured. Apparently wishing to maintain his anti-torture credentials at the time, Obama appointed Brennan to a White House job that did not require Senate confirmation.

Four years later, his human rights record irretrievably tarnished by the illegal drone assassination program, Obama nominated Brennan–who has been running Obama’s drone assassination program from the White House–to be the next DCI. If confirmed, he would succeed Gen. David Petraeus, who resigned following revelations of an extra-marital affair in November 2009.

So, according to Obama, it’s okay to kidnap and torture and kill terrorism suspects without even a hint of “due process of law,” but if you put your dick in the wrong person, you’re unfit to run the CIA.

Obama is, sadly, right: Under the Imperialism of Late Capitalism, only a moral degenerate like John Brennan is fit to run an utterly amoral outfit like the CIA.

By “the Imperialism of Late Capitalism” we mean the forcible opening up of all spatial, ecological and cultural boundaries of peoples and nations to the global flow of capital and goods and services, according to the needs of capital and of Late Capitalism, which itself is wracked by ever-worsening crises that fuel the need for ever-more globalization.

But unlike Barack Obama, whose tolerance for torture and other human rights abuses seems of recent vintage, Brennan’s views were warped from a relatively young age. Born to Irish immigrant parents, John Brennan earned a B.A. in Political Science at Fordham University in 1977 and an M.A. in Government with a concentration in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin in 1980.

Although Brennan officially joined the CIA in 1980—he tells reporters a story of how his “wanderlust” was piqued by a CIA recruiting ad in the New York Times—some of his activities at Fordham suggest his recruitment dates back to his school days. Bob Keane, a classmate from the 4th grade through sophomore year at Fordham, told reporters that Brennan spent the summer after freshman year in Indonesia with a cousin who was working for the Agency for International Development, and visited Bahrain on the way home. “I wondered if he had even been recruited that early,” mused Keane. In fact, Brennan spent his junior year abroad learning fluent Arabic and taking Middle Eastern studies courses at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, a well-known site for CIA recruitment and training.

At UT, Brennan wrote an M.A. Thesis, “Human Rights: The Case Study of Egypt,” in which he denied the existence of “absolute human rights,” defended censorship in Egypt and indicated an early tolerance for torture. “Since the press can play such an influential role in determining the perceptions of the masses, I am in favor of some degree of government censorship,” wrote Brennan.

Taking his relativistic view of human rights to its logical conclusion, Brennan argued that

“the fact that absolute human rights do not exist (with the probable exception of freedom from torture) makes the [human rights] analysis subject to innumerable conditional criticisms.” (emphasis added.)

Think about that for a moment: John Brennan wrote that, in his opinion, not only are human rights not absolute, freedom from torture is only a “probable exception”–meaning that at the young age of 25, the Jesuit-educated Brennan was rejecting the 200-year-old anti-torture teachings of the Jesuit-educated Cesare Beccaria, the father of modern penology and human rights, who argued that torture is always wrong. Just a few years after his probable recruitment by the CIA, Brennan’s mind was already being warped by the needs of capitalist imperialism.

Working for Bush in the 2000s, Brennan became the embodiment of the banality of evil, helping to facilitate illegal kidnappings and torture in the name of the greater good–in this case so-called “national security.” Under Obama, Brennan has become the chief Angel of Death in the White House, selecting which terror suspects are to be murdered via unmanned drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan, and elsewhere–and then lying about it later, as when he publicly claimed that drone attacks in Pakistan in 2010 did not cause “a single collateral death” when authorities knew better.

But the tragedy here lies with Barack Obama, who is able to make statements about the horrors of the Sandy Hook massacre while blithely raining down equivalent massacres on schoolchildren in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is this banality of evil–Obama’s ability to commit evil acts while pretending (to himself and to the world) that he remains a basically decent human being who loves his wife and daughters–that is one of the most corrosive aspects of Late Capitalist Imperialism.

Just as capitalist production alienates the worker, not only from the means of production and the product of his labor, but from his true species-essence as a human being, so too the reproduction of the Late Capitalist system requires acts of moral evil that alienate, not only the doers of these deeds but the entire social formation, from their human essence as creative and moral actors. Because such a reality would be intolerable if faced with honesty, the banality of evil represents a form of social-psychological ideology of denial that perpetuates Late Capitalism and the suffering attendant upon it.

Anti-Capitalist Meetup: Working Class Self-Activity, Part II: The Soul & Spirit of Marxism by LeGauchiste

4:28 pm in Uncategorized by Anti-Capitalist Meetup

As I wrote a week-and-a-half ago (, the concept of self-activity was introduced to me by my first intellectual mentor, labor historian George P. Rawick, a lifelong left activist who edited The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, a definitive, 41-volume collection of oral history interviews with former slaves taken during the 1930s under the auspices of the WPA. In his book on slavery, From Sundown to Sunup: The World the Slaves Made, Rawick emphasized the self-activity of American slaves, which he defined as that which exploited people do in coping with and resisting the conditions of their exploitation. He was especially interested in their strategies to (1) undermine the system of exploitation (e.g., tool-breaking) and (2) assert their human dignity in the face of a system that denies it (e.g., slave family life).

As my study of Marxian socialism has progressed, I’ve come to understand that self-activity is central to the humanist core of Marx’s thinking, and that it represents nothing less than the active, creative aspect of humanity. Creative human activity, aka work or labor, is how we express our deepest selves and how we ensure our survival, but under capitalism labor becomes an activity alien to ourselves, directed and controlled by another, something that degrades us rather than exalting us.

Marx’s concept of man is rooted in Hegel’s Idealist philosophy. Hegel starts with the proposition that appearance and essence are not the same, and that the purpose of dialectics is to grasp the relations between the two, or in other words, between essence and existence.

How to do that? Unlike René Descartes, who wrote “cogito ergo sum” and thus embraced a proto-positivistic conception of thought-grounded identity, for Hegel, essence is realized not in passive contemplation, but through a subject’s active process of existence: “facio ergo sum” (I act therefore I am). (I’ve no idea if Hegel ever wrote that, but he could have.)

However, Hegel’s system is inherently abstract, as the Subject that actively unfolds its essence is the “Idea,” and its dialectical processes take place in the realm of the intellect, then to be expressed in the material world. Thus “Freedom” realizes itself through successive stages of history, but Hegel was not especially interested in the actual struggles of real people for freedom, and was politically quite conservative, supporting the Prussian state and its established Lutheran church.

Nevertheless, Hegel’s Idealist conception of “self-activity” formed the basis of Marx’s materialist dialectic and in particular his understanding of self-activity of the working class. It is not the purpose of this essay to explore Marx’s materialist dialectics in detail, nor to explore how he developed them out of Hegel’s Idealist system.

As a materialist, Marx took his subject to be humanity, i.e., human beings as intelligent mammals actively engaged in producing and reproducing the conditions of their survival: food, shelter, defense, child-raising. The activities in which humanity engages itself Marx called “labor,” synonymous with “life activity.”

“For labor, life activity, productive life itself, appears to man in the first place merely as a means of satisfying a need – the need to maintain physical existence. Yet the productive life is the life of the species. It is life-engendering life. The whole character of a species, its species-character, is contained in the character of its life activity; and free, conscious activity is man’s species-character. Life itself appears only as a means to life.

The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It does not distinguish itself from it. It is its life activity. Man makes his life activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life activity. It is just because of this that he is a species-being. Or it is only because he is a species-being that he is a conscious being, i.e., that his own life is an object for him. Only because of that is his activity free activity.”

Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, “Estranged Labour” (1844).

Nor was this mere philosophical flourish of the young Marx. He wrote very similarly in 1867:

“Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal. An immeasurable interval of time separates the state of things in which a man brings his labour-power to market for sale as a commodity, from that state in which human labour was still in its first instinctive stage. We pre-suppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act. Besides the exertion of the bodily organs, the process demands that, during the whole operation, the workman’s will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention.”

Marx, Capital, vol. I, ch. 7, 1867.

Because under capitalism the labor process yields a wage to the worker but the product belongs exclusively and totally to capital, the latter also holds authority over the details of the production process. Whereas the pre-capitalist artisan or small farmer owned his own means of production (tools, raw materials, land, animals) he also controlled them and the labor process. Over several centuries prior to the last one, capital gradually took ever greater control over production itself, but even at the beginning, the initial development of the division of labor under manufacture, the alienated character of labor under capitalism became clear, and precipitated much of the labor activism from then on.

“This fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces – labor’s product – confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification. Under these economic conditions this realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.

So much does the labor’s realization appear as loss of realization that the worker loses realization to the point of starving to death. So much does objectification appear as loss of the object that the worker is robbed of the objects most necessary not only for his life but for his work. Indeed, labor itself becomes an object which he can obtain only with the greatest effort and with the most irregular interruptions. So much does the appropriation of the object appear as estrangement that the more objects the worker produces the less he can possess and the more he falls under the sway of his product, capital.

All these consequences are implied in the statement that the worker is related to the product of labor as to an alien object. For on this premise it is clear that the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own. … The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object. … The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. It means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.”

Marx, E&PM, 1844.

Alienated activity is thus the opposite of self-activity.

The same dynamic applies to political activity, for human beings engage in politics, understood broadly as power relations throughout a social formation, and create political movements just as they do everything else: via the materialist dialectic of making their life activity itself the object of their will and their consciousness as they engage & reproduce the world, both natural and social, around them. To oversimplify: learning by doing.

And what do working class women and men learn when they engage in politics, whether at the workplace, or at the ballot box, or in the streets? The dominant lesson throughout the history of capitalism has been that collective action is necessary for working people to have even a chance of success in pressing their interests, which are often learned to be collective in nature: higher wages, shorter hours, better working conditions, more control over the work process.

That is why, despite the forceful and fatal efforts by capitalist governments for centuries, workers spontaneously form unions and engage in collective action against capital: the nature of capitalism renders this the only possibly effective route to influence for the mass of people.

Such institutions and activism may become the schools for working class self-activity, where the ideological hegemony of capital may be challenged. However, as we have seen, the institutions of labor are quite vulnerable to capture, whether total (company unions) or partial (conservative trade unions). At such times, the union itself may temporarily become a more important locus for self-activity than the workplace.

For an excellent example of working class self-activity in relation to OWS, there is the recent struggle by restaurant workers at the Upper East Side location of the “Hot and Crusty” chain, who recently organized a union and extracted a promise from their employer to bargain in good faith.

“After enduring below minimum wage pay and verbal and sexual harassment, the workers reached out to labor organizations and began attending Occupy Wall Street meetings last fall. With the support of OWS and the Laundry Workers Center, a volunteer organizing group, the workers organized an independent union, the Hot and Crusty Workers Association, this spring. They won thousands of dollars in backpay and safer workplace conditions.”

According to Marx, human beings are productive and creative by nature, and when forced to produce and create under conditions that alienate them from the creative process and its results, they will create ideas and activities that are opposed to those alienating conditions and the economic system that requires them. It doesn’t mean they will win, but they will fight. That’s why the struggle continues. Not solely because of the imperatives of capital, but because the imperatives of the creative human spirit demand it.

Cross-posted on Voices on the Square

Fiat Lux: Banishing Alienation Through Lights and Loud Noise by Northsylvania

3:00 pm in Uncategorized by Anti-Capitalist Meetup

Alienation can be considered part of the process of capitalist exploitation, but it can also mean feeling cut off and isolated from the surrounding world. Alienation in the Marxist sense means that capitalist production separates the worker from the object or service he produces, leading him to separate the effect of his own labour from the products he uses that are made by others. At the same time, he becomes no more than a product or object himself.

Thus the more the worker by his labor appropriates the external world, sensuous nature, the more he deprives himself of the means of life in two respects: first, in that the sensuous external world more and more ceases to be an object belonging to his labor – to be his labor’s means of life; and, second, in that it more and more ceases to be a means of life in the immediate sense, means for the physical subsistence of the worker.
In both respects, therefore, the worker becomes a servant of his object, first, in that he receives an object of labor, i.e., in that he receives work, and, secondly, in that he receives means of subsistence. This enables him to exist, first as a worker; and second, as a physical subject. The height of this servitude is that it is only as a worker that he can maintain himself as a physical subject and that it is only as a physical subject that he is a worker. (emphasis his)

This separation can often lead to alienation in the sense that I use it here: the feeling of being cut off from society, which leads to feelings so deadened that the outside word seems unreal. This is a common feature of depression, a disease, and dis-ease is an appropriate description, so common that it is considered the fourth leading cause of disability worldwide.

Communism, cooperative working associations, and unions were meant to address not only the economic injustice of capitalist working conditions, but also the loss of identity that comes with the lack of control over circumstances in working life. Justina expresses this aspect in her diary on Venezuelan workers’ cooperatives:

The key to overcoming capitalism’s human devastation and systemic greed is to be found in joining together with other members of one’s community or work place and acting to transform our economy and thus our society into one that places human needs and aspirations at the top of our priorities.

Unfortunately, most people in a capitalist system feel that they have little choice as to their working circumstances, and so try to regain their sense of self through how they spend their spare time, but often this is set apart from working life. Television, movies, and the Internet are one way of reconnecting, but they usually have very little relation to making a living wage. Some hobbies might use skills learned in the workplace, but they are often individual rather than collaborative efforts, and knowledge remains closed to society as a whole. However, in this case, ordinary people in one town, and then other nearby towns and villages, combined their industrial and home-based skills with a love of creativity to convert an existing tradition, the local Guy Fawkes bonfires, into a spectacular celebration of their own individuality and collective spirit: The Somerset illuminated carnivals.

Several elements combined to make Bridgwater a particularly likely place for these carnivals to begin. Guy Fawkes bonfires had been held there since 1605, and were immensely popular. The parading of effigies as a form of social punishment and rough justice was already present in Skimmington, a Somerset tradition that was also occasionally used in a humorous way to collect money for charity. Bonfires were times when ordinary people could get symbolic (and occasionally literal!) revenge on landlords, officials, and other powerful individuals who had aroused their ire. Later on unpopular bosses and strikebreakers were turned into effigies and burned, all under protection of Royal decree.

Another important contribution was that Bridgwater was remote enough from London that many minor transgressions, which would have been punished otherwise, were overlooked. Bridgwater had a had a reputation for both independence and contrariness as well. From the Peasants Revolt in 1381 to 1896, when the military was called in to smash the brick workers’ strike, Bridgwater workers were often on the wrong side of official policy. One example of this is squibbing, the use of large hand-held fireworks, which even now require windows to be boarded up where it is performed, and in the past, when they were still manufactured locally and were considerably larger, caused numerous injuries, occasional deaths, and once levelled four houses.

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