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The Torture Report & Life Under a Regime of Domination

Let’s start with this recent New York Times news release:

A turning point for Ms. Feinstein came in March with the disclosure that C.I.A. workers had infiltrated the computers used by Senate Intelligence Committee staff members to write the report.

So DiFi was okay with the CIA (national security y’know) until she found out they were spying on her. It’s more fun being involved in domination than being its victim.

And then there’s this camera thing, also from the Times:

Photographs of lynchings didn’t foster a shift toward justice. News reports of water hoses and police dogs didn’t compel national outrage from ‘sea to shining sea.’ Even the advent of the camcorder did not produce accountability or a cultural shift in America’s Jim Crow policing. Remember that in 1992, after George Holliday documented the beating of Rodney King, a Simi Valley, Calif., jury still found it in their minds and hearts to declare the four officers innocent.

So even publicity won’t stop the sort of ongoing brutality young Black males see in America today. Domination is infused into our political economy too.

In a recent interview with Noam Chomsky you can read him pretending (I presume this is a joke) that the capitalist system has principles. Here’s Chomsky comments on the early half of American history:

Well, this is a good illustration of how remote our system is from capitalism. It’s hard to think of any greater violation of capitalist and market principles than slavery. But the country was based on two basic commitments: one, slavery, which was, as Baptist points out, was all the source, pretty much the source of the growing economy, including the industrial economy. The other is the extermination of the indigenous population by state power. What’s that got to do with capitalism?

Slavery, extermination, capitalism? They’re all forms of domination, of course. Very funny, Mr. Chomsky. (Unfortunately, the critique of capitalism, which I’ve visited in many a diary here, is beyond the scope of this particular diary. Ask a WalMart worker about it.)

I suppose that if you enroll in the introduction to theory class in a politics program at a university these days they will still teach you Thucidydes’ Melian Dialogue, wherein 2500 years ago the Athenians were supposed to have said, in threatening the Melians with extermination:

The strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must.

So that’s the essence of domination, from the agricultural empires to the day on which Darren Wilson became a millionaire after having killed Michael Brown.

The sources of dominant power are just going to continue with brutality until somehow the whole process can be made to affect them personally. You can read this in the history of the great agricultural empires. One emperor after another, ascending to the throne through brutality, to rule until a sufficient conspiracy can be found to murder that emperor, at which point another emperor does the same thing.

Democracy was supposed to change the reality of domination, but actually existing democracy just adds elections to the mix. It’s still the same mix. For further theoretical clarification, see Ellen Meiksins Wood’s Democracy Against Capitalism. Decisions are placed out of the orbit of democracy because the point of democracy is to validate business as usual.

This is what confuses me about the apologists for existing power. I confront these people from time to time on the Internet. So you like Obama? So you like Clinton? The system in which they participate is based on predatory practices. The military budgets stay high, while the welfare state is gradually replaced by a government order based on corporate patronage. Did these people ever change anything in that regard? And those glorious, money-raising Democrats we’re all supposed to vote for — What can they really do for us?

They couldn’t even stop the sequester, for instance — they all voted for it in one form or another. So much for all those glorious social programs we hoped were going to end the jobs crisis.

In the political sphere nowadays, acquiring the instruments of domination is about bundling money, plus taking a bit from some super-rich meddlers along the way. What cements the thing is what Antonio Gramsci called “hegemony” — the ideologies and institutions and practices which keep a ruling class in power.

Ideologies are beliefs that restrain people from disturbing the existing order — America is exceptional so we don’t prosecute torturers and stuff like that. Sometimes ideologies are presented in an organized way, as propaganda. The institutions and practices are more important, though — we might discuss being dissenters in idle chat without really being dangerous to the system in any way.

Money is, of course, “civilized” society’s primary instrument for the maintenance of the order based on domination. (And by “civilized,” here, I mean the societies in the core states of an expanding capitalist system, which I’ve of course discussed in other diaries.) Money is, of course, the velvet glove for the military fist — nobody in the government ever talks peace anymore, despite the obvious defects of the alternative, and so that military fist is still around. Locally, even — if the public can’t be domesticated through the power of money, you know, by being obliged to “make a living” on the “open market” every day, there’s always the militarized police.

You’ll note that the effective use of the instruments of the regime of domination (ideology, hegemony, institutional control, control of money and property and so on) does not require any sort of conspiracy. The beneficiaries of the system merely need to have common notions of self-interest, and, to play its part, the public merely needs to believe in a common ideology; neither group needs to “conspire” to do either of these things.

Contenders for the throne in the empires and kingdoms of old could disagree quite violently as to who should be emperor or king, while agreeing with each other upon the concept of “empire” or “kingdom.” See? No conspiracy.

By operating through the confluence of class interests, a social order based on domination is fully compatible with what the political theorists call “liberalism.” Subjects of the current social order, for instance, are free to make, and debate, unimportant “political” choices (e.g. which fraction of the ruling class is to compromise with the other fraction in deciding policy) while the real choices are largely the province of corporations and autonomous government agencies.

Public elections, in this regard, are the strategic domain in which the public’s distrust of the “other” candidate or candidates serves the political class as the most useful form of demographic power for “both” sides. In this way Barack Obama won the 2012 Presidential race through an anti-Romney campaign in the swing states while Mitt Romney relied primarily upon anti-Obama sentiment for any core constituency which he might have claimed. It’s understandable if one votes for Democrats to avoid electing Republicans; but this is more of a reflex than any actual gesture of resistance.

Also. note that life under a regime of domination doesn’t rule out wealth, prosperity, and material blessing. The social order based on domination is not a “failure.” It doles out privileges, while making the “underprivileged” into what the social theorist Michel Foucault called “docile bodies.”

What the torture report shows has nothing to do with any of that. What it shows is that there’s a big downside to being a docile body, which is why resistance to domination is so important.

Creative Commons-Licensed Photo by Shrieking Tree 

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