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Are We Already There?

On August 21, Chris Hedges wrote a great post called “Bradley Manning and the Gangster State.” It is consonant with my own thinking, and, more importantly, it makes one focus on the most important issue facing democracy today: “Is there a democracy in the United States anymore, or have we already evolved into a form of totalitarianism?” And if we have, then is there any return from this, a counter-evolution or revolution, that will restore our political liberties and our ability to change our political regime?

”The most spied upon, monitored and controlled population in human history”

Here’s Chris’s opening statement:

”The swift and brutal verdict read out by Army Col. Judge Denise Lind in sentencing Pfc. Bradley Manning to 35 years in prison means we have become a nation run by gangsters. It signals the inversion of our moral and legal order, the death of an independent media, and the open and flagrant misuse of the law to prevent any oversight or investigation of official abuses of power, including war crimes. The passivity of most of the nation’s citizens—the most spied upon, monitored and controlled population in human history—to the judicial lynching of Manning means they will be next. There are no institutional mechanisms left to halt the shredding of our most fundamental civil liberties, including habeas corpus and due process, or to prevent pre-emptive war, the assassination of U.S. citizens by the government and the complete obliteration of privacy.”

Some may object to the passionate and evaluative tone of this opening, and may want to quibble about whether Americans are “the most spied upon, monitored and controlled population in human history,” seeing this as glossing over the extreme conditions existing at the height of the Nazi, Stalin, and Mao regimes in Germany, the USSR, and China. But nevertheless it is hard to deny that in the areas of concern to the National Security Surveillance State, including not just foreign policy, “homeland security,” and the big media, but also in maintaining the dominance of the FIRE, Energy, military/industrial, and health insurance sectors of the economy, this statement is, sadly, true.

In the United States we have now a rule of men, who choose which laws they will obey, which they will enforce, and who they will enforce them against. What is the rule of men over laws about, other than that?

Officials in our Executive Branch do not enforce aspects of the Geneva convention and other international human rights agreements, even though they are the law of the land. They exempt higher ranking members of the Armed forces from their responsibility for enforcing these agreements and the laws of war.

They also don’t enforce legal prohibitions against frauds and theft, when it comes to very large financial institutions and their executives, publicly admitting that because of the size of big banks, and huge insurance companies, it would be too dangerous to the economic system to subject them to the weight of law enforcement and to justice. They also exempt members of the intelligence community from law enforcement and justice, even when whistle blowers reveal wholesale law breaking and abuses of power and authority.

We have a media which will not broadly discuss certain subjects, and which produces and/or seizes upon daily, weekly, seasonal, and “patriotic” ritualistic distractions, to avoid addressing the fundamental issues of the emergence of totalitarianism, plutocracy, and kleptocracy in our midst. The media specifically avoid prioritizing issues according to their relative importance, so that show trials about crimes against persons, events involving sexuality and popular entertainers, scandals about individual politicians, social media sensations, weddings and deaths of celebrities, and localized weather events and catastrophes occupy much of the broadcasting space of major news networks and cable media for hours on end, while very little space is devoted to discussing fundamental issues of threats to democracy, the absence of economic and social justice, growing inequality, and environmental/climatological/energy. These overwhelmingly important issues get relatively short shrift and little priority in the daily media. Even when important matters are discussed in the “professional” media, it has become its mark that it sees to it that attention is distracted from the big issues by making its coverage about the personalities involved, and their moral, social, gender, or sexual proclivities.

“State power is to be, from now on, unchecked, unfettered and unregulated”

Wednesday’s sentencing marks one of the most important watersheds in U.S. history. It marks the day when the state formally declared that all who name and expose its crimes will become political prisoners or be forced, like Edward Snowden, and perhaps Glenn Greenwald, to spend the rest of their lives in exile. It marks the day when the country dropped all pretense of democracy, obliterated checks and balances under the separation of powers and rejected the rule of law. It marks the removal of the mask of democracy, already a fiction, and its replacement with the ugly, naked visage of corporate totalitarianism. State power is to be, from now on, unchecked, unfettered and unregulated. And those who do not accept unlimited state power, always the road to tyranny, will be ruthlessly persecuted. On Wednesday we became vassals. As I watched the burly guards hustle Manning out of a military courtroom at Fort Meade after the two-minute sentencing, as I listened to half a dozen of his supporters shout to him, “We’ll keep fighting for you, Bradley! You’re our hero!” I realized that our nation has become a vast penal colony.

How can democracy be present when those who expose secret laws, secret punishments, and crimes in the Government, the Military, the intelligence and homeland security agencies, and other key institutions are imprisoned, or forced into exile for their disclosures? Democracy relies on transparency and broad participation for citizens to be able to evaluate and replace their governments when necessary.

Without such peaceful replacement, democracy does not and cannot exist. But how can we evaluate how our leaders are performing, if we don’t know what they and their subordinates are doing and, if, even when leaks occur, leaders lie to us routinely, and lie about and prosecute, imprison, or exile the whistle blowers, and enforce secret laws?

The big fail

If we actually had a functioning judicial system and an independent press, Manning would have been a witness for the prosecution against the war criminals he helped expose. He would not have been headed, bound and shackled, to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. His testimony would have ensured that those who waged illegal war, tortured, lied to the public, monitored our electronic communications and ordered the gunning down of unarmed civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen were sent to Fort Leavenworth’s cells. If we had a functioning judiciary the hundreds of rapes and murders Manning made public would be investigated. The officials and generals who lied to us when they said they did not keep a record of civilian dead would be held to account for the 109,032 “violent deaths” in Iraq, including those of 66,081 civilians. The pilots in the “Collateral Murder” video, which showed the helicopter attack on unarmed civilians in Baghdad that left nine dead, including two Reuters journalists, would be court-martialed.

In this passage, the failure of our whole system to uphold the laws and the Constitution is reflected. The Congress passed terrible, vague, and ambiguous laws to enable the National Security Surveillance State. The Executive Branch whether run by a Republican “conservative,” or a Democratic “progressive” interpreted the faulty laws to maximize executive power to act against the public and escape accountability. Then the Judiciary, largely failed to protect the Constitution at every turn, while deferring to Executive interpretations, and then the famously “free press” was either missing in action or acting as a vehicle to spread Administration talking points defending and justifying their outlandish grabs and abuses of authority going way beyond any reasonable interpretations of the intent of Congress.

At this point, our vaunted political decentralization failed too. The Executive used its authority under the Patriot Act to embark on a program of militarization of State and local police, accompanied by “information sharing” that was then used to enable local authorities to suppress dissent about economic issues locally, by systematically, and with much planning aforethought, violating the rights of Free Speech, Assembly, Press, and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. And again the Press stood by, watched it all happen, reported on details, when its own members were not being prevented from observing an event, having their phones and cameras confiscated, or being illegally arrested for some hours just to prevent them from reporting on unconstitutional abuses; and then, in the end, accepted it all with nary a whimper, so long as the reporters from the big media outlets were largely spared the direct attentions of the police.

Too optimistic?

After a statement about the awful message the Manning sentence sends to the world, Chris Hedges continues with:

There are strict rules now in our American penal colony. If we remain supine, if we permit ourselves to be passively stripped of all political power and voice, if we refuse to resist as we are incrementally reduced to poverty and the natural world is senselessly exploited and destroyed by corporate oligarchs, we will have the dubious freedom to wander among the ruins of the empire, to be diverted by tawdry spectacles and to consume the crass products marketed to us. But if we speak up, if we name what is being done to us and done in our name to others, we will become, like Manning, Julian Assange and Snowden, prey for the vast security and surveillance apparatus. And we will, if we effectively resist, go to prison or be forced to flee.

In the end, I think this is too optimistic. The National Security Surveillance State will probably allow politically passive people to live their lives with a minimum of interference, during the time it is conditioning the population to passivity and unquestioning obedience. But since the technological capability is there to eventually subject everyone to very tight control by the State, and since all the institutional mechanisms preventing this are increasingly supine, it would be very surprising if the extent and scope of State interference in everyone’s life did not grow over time, until we all became “prey for the vast security and surveillance apparatus” of the State, and a technologically more sophisticated version of 1984 is the reality of everyday life in the United States and other modern nations.

How can it be legal and constitutional?

Manning from the start was subjected to a kangaroo trial. His lawyers were never permitted to mount a credible defense. They were left only to beg for mercy. Under the military code of conduct and international law, the soldier had a moral and legal obligation to report the war crimes he witnessed. But this argument was ruled off-limits. The troves of documents that Manning transmitted to WikiLeaks in February 2010—known as the Iraq and Afghanistan “War Logs”—which exposed numerous war crimes and instances of government dishonesty, were barred from being presented. And it was accepted in the courtroom, without any evidence, that Manning’s release of the documents had harmed U.S. security and endangered U.S. citizens. A realistic defense was not possible. It never is in any state show trial.

This is one of the most impactful passages in Hedges’s post. How can it be legal and constitutional for the Court, after Nuremburg, to rule out the defense that Manning “. . . had a moral and legal obligation to report the war crimes he witnessed”?

How can it be legal and constitutional to convict and imprison him while barring from the trial the “. . . Iraq and Afghanistan “War Logs”—which exposed numerous war crimes and instances of government dishonesty”?

How can it be legal and constitutional to accept “. . . in the courtroom, without any evidence, that Manning’s release of the documents had harmed U.S. security and endangered U.S. Citizens”?

So, how can it have been legal and constitutional to convict and imprison Manning? The answer is that it cannot. The answer is that it is an abuse of military and executive power. The answer is that it is a denial of his right to a fair trial, and also a denial of the right of all of us to be free from arbitrary and abusive authority.

Totalitarian kleptocracy and the just person

Chris then proceeds to quote Manning’s very moving statement, and ends by saying that “. . . And that is the real reason Bradley Manning is being locked away. He is a just man.” Chelsea Manning, as she now self-identifies, is a just woman, and a true hero of democracy. But what does it mean for our two questions “Is there a democracy in the United States anymore, or have we already evolved into a form of totalitarianism? And if we have, then is there any return from this, a counter-evolution or revolution, that will restore our political liberties and our ability to change our political regime?” when a just person must go to prison in the name of national security for defending the needs of democracy and our very constitution and laws?

I think the first thing it means is that we have already evolved into a form of totalitarianism that is subverting our democratic forms. That totalitarianism isn’t consolidated yet, however. That is, we are there, in many essentials, but also the transition between democracy and fascism is incomplete when it comes to institutionalizing all the feedback mechanisms that stabilize changes in political regimes.

We still see some forbearance and defensiveness from our authorities in asserting all the prerogatives of totalitarian regimes across the whole population. Only a few of us have felt its political bite here yet, and our Armed forces aren’t large enough, or concentrated enough here at home, or loyal enough to our elites to consolidate the regime so it can manage 320 million people and reduce them to blind fear. In addition, the rhetoric of democracy and freedom is still a two-edged sword for our elites. The lip service they give it, as today, during the 50 year celebration of the March on Washington, can validate the idea of resistance against the policies they favor. Nor do many of them easily believe that they are totalitarian in their practices, policies and attitudes toward the surveillance State.

The opportunity and the difficult way back

So, we still have a little opportunity to travel the road back toward democracy. But we must now make that good and honest fight for it, as Chris Hedges has long been doing. We must insist that the growing list of prisoners for democracy must be freed and pardoned. We must insist that the National Security Surveillance State be dismantled immediately, and then take our chances that normal police methods can counter terrorism sufficiently well to keep our annual fatalities small from that cause. We must recognize that perfect security is never possible, and that it is never acceptable in a democracy to sacrifice civil liberties and rights in the name of security, and that, more broadly, there are always trade-offs, but none when it comes to maintaining our survival as a democracy. About that there can no balance test; no cheap pragmatism.

We must also ensure that this never happens again. To do this, we have to vote en bloc to replace the whole Congress and Senate of the United States with office holders who are not implicated in the maintenance of our corrupt surveillance state. We can still do this now, if we can produce 60-65% majorities nationwide in 2014. The gerrymandered districts can’t stop those kinds of majorities from electing the people they want to elect.

The intention to vote en bloc must apply to both Republican and Democratic office holders, and we must not be swayed by corporate-funded propaganda explaining why our own Congressperson or Senator is our friend, while everyone else’s Congressperson is causing all the problems. The media are full of distortions and outright lies. Unless we have time to parse most of what we hear carefully, it is always very difficult to decide what the truth of a particular matter is.

What the heavy majority of us know, and what all polls show, however, is that we disapprove of Congress’s performance. But, the only way we’ll get a really different Congress is if we all just vote to kick incumbents out, and do not make an exception for our own Congressperson or Senator, unless we have a very, very strong conviction, that she or he is one of the very few who are bucking the plutocracy and defending democracy now. We must be sure that the incumbents we choose to vote for are not part of the problem.

There’s more than this needed to restore democracy, we also need big changes in the Executive Branch, the Judiciary and in the media too. But I’m going to leave this for another day, because if we change the Congress wholesale in the way I’ve just proposed, then we’ll already be going a long way toward changing direction and beginning to unwind the the great damage to our democracy we’ve already done.

(Cross-posted from

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Joseph M. Firestone, Ph.D. is Managing Director, CEO of the Knowledge Management Consortium International (KMCI), and Director and co-Instructor of KMCI’s CKIM Certificate program, as well as Director of KMCI’s synchronous, real-time Distance Learning Program. He is also CKO of Executive Information Systems, Inc. a Knowledge and Information Management Consultancy.

Joe is author or co-author of more than 150 articles, white papers, and reports, as well as the following book-length publications: Knowledge Management and Risk Management; A Business Fable, UK: Ark Group, 2008, Risk Intelligence Metrics: An Adaptive Metrics Center Industry Report, Wilmington, DE: KMCI Online Press, 2006, “Has Knowledge management been Done,” Special Issue of The Learning Organization: An International Journal, 12, no. 2, April, 2005, Enterprise Information Portals and Knowledge Management, Burlington, MA: KMCI Press/Butterworth-Heinemann, 2003; Key Issues in The New Knowledge Management, Burlington, MA: KMCI Press/Butterworth-Heinemann, 2003, and Excerpt # 1 from The Open Enterprise, Wilmington, DE: KMCI Online Press, 2003.

Joe is also developer of the web sites,,, and the blog “All Life is Problem Solving” at, and He has taught Political Science at the Graduate and Undergraduate Levels, and has a BA from Cornell University in Government, and MA and Ph.D. degrees in Comparative Politics and International Relations from Michigan State University.