Human Rights

Democracy Crisis: We Are Enslaving Ourselves to Illegitimate Power

Americans have surrendered democracy—the consequences are murder.

This will long be remembered as the week when another grand jury declined to prosecute another white police officer in the death of another unarmed African-American man, this time in the nation’s largest and most diverse city, a supposed bastion of liberalism. For many black people, and indeed for many people of all races, this seemed like a disturbing lesson on race and state power in America. For all the apparent progress we have made, and all the enormous social change of the last half-century, it seems evident that those who wield state power on the most direct and intimate level – the police – still have the right to exercise lethal violence against ordinary citizens with impunity. At any rate, they have that right when it comes to some citizens.

It was also a week when another news nugget flashed by in my Twitter feed, noticed by hardly anyone and unlikely to be much remembered. But there were disturbing lessons to be found there also. A British legal nonprofit called Reprieve reported this week that, on average, every United States drone strike in the Middle East kills 28 unidentified people for every intended target. In America’s fruitless quest to kill al-Qaida head Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Reprieve report alleges, your tax dollars and mine have paid for the deaths of 105 individuals, 76 of them children. In its attempts to kill 41 specific people deemed “high-value targets” in the war on terror, the U.S. has apparently killed more than 1,000 people as unintended collateral damage. Incidentally, al-Zawahiri and at least five other of those celebrity villains remain alive. No one has taken to the streets to mourn those deaths and cry out for justice, largely because they took place far away in a murky war we are told nothing about. (Finding any media coverage of the Reprieve report proved to be a challenge.)

As the daughter of Eric Garner, the man choked to death by cops on Staten Island, said on Friday, this is a moment of national crisis, and one that is long overdue. But the true crisis is not limited to the relationship between African-Americans and the police, as urgent as that issue appears at the moment. Indeed, that is only one aspect of the crisis, which is not something that can be fixed with cop-cams or by sending a few rogue officers to prison. On a larger scale, the crisis is about the corruption and perversion of democracy, and in many cases the willing surrender of democracy by those who live in fear of terrorists from distant lands and criminals from the inner city. To borrow an explosive concept from Nietzsche and turn it to new purposes, it’s about the “slave morality” that characterizes so much of American life, meaning the desire to be dominated and ruled, to give up control over one’s own life and allow others to make the decisions.

Since the word “slave” carries special meaning in American history, let me be clear that I’m not talking here about the legacy of 19th-century human slavery (although that too is still a factor in our national life). I’m talking about the plurality or majority of contemporary Americans who have enslaved themselves – in moral and psychological terms — to the rule of a tiny economic oligarchy, and to a state that serves its interests, in exchange for the promise of order, safety and comfort. That order, safety and comfort then become the absolute values, the only values; they become coterminous with “freedom,” which must be defended by the most exaggerated means. If the leaders hint that those values are under attack from sinister forces, or might someday be, the timorous, self-enslaved majority consents to whatever is said to be necessary, whether that means NSA data sweeps, indefinite detention camps, mass murder by remote control or yet another ground war in the Middle East. Compared to all that, letting a few killer cops go free is small potatoes.

Racism and its close cousin xenophobia are ingredients baked into the slave morality that afflicts so many white Americans, feeding a persecution complex and a sense of permanent aggrievement among the most historically privileged demographic group on the planet. (Yes, there are millions of poor whites, and they have good reason to lament their marginal, forgotten status. They also have a strong tendency to look for enemies in the wrong places.) Crime is at or near all-time lows, employment is high, many consumer goods are cheaper than ever before and the United States has not experienced a major attack by foreign terrorists in 13 years. Given all that, it is crucial to conceal the real source of middle-class and working-class America’s worsening anomie: the vast gulf of inequality between the super-rich and the rest of us, along with the stagnant wages, declining benefits and longer work weeks confronted by ordinary people.

As the black radical philosopher Frantz Fanon observed in the early 1960s, racism becomes a tool in the hands of the masters, used to pit different sectors of the oppressed against each other. He was talking about the European working class and its reluctance to join forces with the anti-colonial struggle in Africa, but we face a version of the same problem today. This week I watched an eerie and powerful new collage film from Swedish documentarian Göran Hugo Olsson called “Concerning Violence,” which is inspired by Fanon’s revolutionary classic “The Wretched of the Earth” (a book not as far away from Nietzsche as you might suppose). The film is an essayistic and aphoristic assemblage of archival footage from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, opening a window onto various episodes from that little-understood and profoundly important period of post-colonial and anti-colonial history in Africa. But it also struck me as a distorted mirror reflecting our own situation, which has elements of internal colonialism (with respect to the poorest elements of our population), and an external neo-colonialism, although held at a great distance and largely invisible.

As you watch guerrilla fighters attack Portuguese colonial troops in Mozambique, or white Rhodesians insult the servants and prepare to flee their homeland, Lauryn Hill reads oracular passages from Fanon, which sometimes also appear on-screen as overlays. Colonialism, he says, shows us “a world cut in two; its borders and frontiers are shown by barracks and police stations.” While a police officer, who may well be a “native” drawn from the oppressed class, is positioned as a neutral intermediary or a keeper of the peace, he is in fact “the bringer of violence into the mind and the home of the native.” It is through the instrument of policing, Fanon says, that the colonist teaches the colonized that violence is the only effective strategy, and the only language the colonist can understand.

“The zone where the natives live,” Fanon writes, “is not complementary to the zone inhabited by the settlers. The two zones are opposed, but not in the service of a higher unity.” While the white settlers live in “a strongly built town all made of stone and steel,” with bright lights and smoothly paved streets, the natives live somewhere quite different. “The town belonging to the colonized people – the shantytown, the Negro village, the medina, the reservation – is a place of ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute. They are born there, it matters little where or how; they die there, it matters not where or how.” Perhaps the contrast between, say, Ferguson and the most desirable St. Louis suburbs, or between the housing projects of Staten Island and the Upper West Side, is not quite so dramatic, nor the segregation so ironclad. But Fanon’s almost mathematical formula – the two zones of American life are opposed, but not in the service of any higher unity – feels distressingly accurate.

If we have no literal division between natives and settlers in this country – the continent’s native population having been driven to the outermost margins of society – multiple overlapping forms of bigotry and prejudice have served the purpose well. A litany of threats must be concocted or inflated, and then suppressed, by means the morally enslaved majority embraces, tolerates or ignores. Ebola-infected terrorists must be wiped out in Yemen before they can come here; invading brown hordes from Mexico must be thwarted by an impregnable border fence; African-American men, understood to be “violent” and “angry” whether or not they behave that way, must be cut down in the streets, or incarcerated en masse, before they can invade the suburbs.

One could argue that Mike Brown and Eric Garner died because they expressed insufficiently avid slave morality, or did not do so rapidly enough. Reasonable-sounding people on TV and the Internet have repeatedly assured us, over the last few weeks, that those who submit to authority and trust the system (despite the manifest and obvious failures of the system) need not fear being killed in the street. There is a logic here, but it is the logic of military occupation that Fanon would have recognized in the colonial context, not the logic of democracy: Capitulate entirely and without hesitation, do not insist on your so-called rights, and you will be permitted to live.

When a police officer kills an unarmed black man and goes unpunished, we see two interdependent problems at once: the problem of racism, and the problem of state power exercised in its most brutal and overt fashion, violence legitimized by the cloak of authority and exercised with only the barest pretense of accountability. That kind of violence is self-evidently not compatible with the principles of democracy, and we can see that contradiction embodied in someone like Bob McCulloch, the St. Louis prosecutor who nominally serves as an elected representative of the people but whose true role was revealed to be that of servant and protector of state power.

At first glance, the ongoing drone war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia – and perhaps other places we don’t know about – seems entirely disconnected from the Brown and Garner killings and the subsequent legal whitewashing. The latter reflects a domestic social issue of long standing, bound up with America’s convoluted system of state, regional and local jurisdictions and law enforcement agencies. The former is a matter of “foreign policy” and executive power, an artifact of the technological age and the officially endless war on terror. The drone war is conducted in secret, with the government almost never acknowledging whom it has killed or why. Police killings of civilians generally happen in public, and generally require at least the semblance of a public response.

But the two phenomena are more closely connected than they appear. As we have seen in Ferguson and elsewhere, the military-industrial complex is now heavily invested in American policing, and local law enforcements now resemble poorly trained regional armies. Furthermore, both invoke the well-established principle that the state holds a monopoly on legitimate violence, and then extend it in insidious fashion: All state violence is now deemed legitimate by definition, and the state itself is the sole judge and guarantor of that legitimacy. As the state holds out to us its open hand, seeking to reassure us that all has been handled according to law and in the interests of order, it keeps the other hand clenched in a fist behind its back.

I have no doubt that Barack Obama, like many other people in and around the Democratic Party, feels profoundly troubled by the Brown and Garner deaths and the resulting grand jury decisions, with their distinctive taint of Jim Crow justice. While the president is certainly not responsible for the persistence of racism, he might well ask himself about his uses of state power, and about how police violence inflicted on random citizens in America’s streets relates to the violence inflicted by America on random citizens of faraway places. Obama has expanded executive power beyond Richard Nixon’s wildest dreams, and has claimed the right – without quite coming out and saying so — to conduct extrajudicial executions of American citizens and foreign nationals alike without even the pretense of due process. No future president is likely to relinquish that right voluntarily.

When state violence happens in secret and for undisclosed reasons – death from above, raining down on some village in the desert – we currently don’t even have the right to know about it, and still less to question it. When the violence happens out in the open, with the world’s cellphones watching, the convention that the dead person had certain rights, and the rest of us still have them, must be maintained. Those rights look more tenuous all the time, and rights not claimed or exercised have a tendency to wither away. Still, even the spectral semblance of theoretical rights is important. In the wake of the Brown and Garner decisions we have seen a series of spontaneous street protests unparalleled in recent American history, by people of all races determined to reclaim those rights for everyone.

Where will those protests lead, and what kind of social change can they accomplish? If we really want democracy – a proposition that is by no means clear — we will have to take it or make it, by whatever means necessary. Nietzsche would no doubt tell us it was a sham and a fraud, an empty ideal of universal mediocrity not worth pursuing. Frantz Fanon would insist that nonviolent civil disobedience will not be enough, and that we will need “a process of complete disorder” in which the state’s monopoly on violence is confronted and overthrown. Only a cynic would suggest they might both be right.

Andrew O'Hehir is a senior writer for Salon.

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