It is tempting, when one surveys the current state of this country, to conclude that the system is broken – that something, somewhere along the line has gone terribly, terribly wrong. How else to account for the endless wars, the lingering recession, the ever-widening rich-poor gap? As unsettling as this conclusion may be, however, the reality is far more disturbing. The system is not broken. In fact, it is working just as intended.
This point is crucial to any understanding of political events today. Without it, much of what takes place seems to defy explanation. Indeed, when measured against stated goals, many U.S. actions appear, by any rational standard, insane: waging a War on Terror guaranteed to provoke more terror, for example, or appointing the very architects of the financial collapse to then “fix” the catastrophe. From such examples one can draw two possible conclusions: that U.S. policymakers are epically incapable of rational thought; or that their stated goals (eradicating terrorism, fixing the economy) are not their actual goals.
American policymakers are not irrational. Their actions are not accidental, but calculated. If the effects are horrifying it is because they are the result of a system that is itself horrifying, not the unfortunate byproducts of a well-intentioned system that is simply functioning improperly. Simone de Beauvoir recognized this when she linked the use of torture by French forces during the Algerian War to the unjust political and economic order the war served to protect. As she put it: “There are no ‘abuses’ or ‘excesses’ here, only an all-pervasive system.”
In my June 30 post, I wrote that many of the ugliest chapters in U.S. history, far from being isolated incidents of temporary national insanity, were actually integral to the functioning of the American state (as distinct from its government – the difference can be found here):
The truth is that economic exploitation is not the exception but the rule, tracing a bloody path through U.S. history from slavery and the subjugation of Native Americans to the current oil wars in the Middle East. That is what the American state does and has always done. That is its purpose. That is its function.
While that passage focused specifically on the U.S., the description applies more generally to all political states. One can see this exploitative dynamic at work most brazenly in Europe, where austerity measures are forcing ordinary people to pay for the economic destruction wrought by a small clique of legally untouchable elites. This sort of class warfare serves as the cornerstone of the state, as Albert Jay Nock wrote in his 1935 book Our Enemy, the State:
The positive testimony of history is that the State invariably had its origin in conquest and confiscation. No primitive State known to history originated in any other manner. On the negative side, it has been proved beyond peradventure that no primitive State could possibly have had any other origins. Moreover, the sole invariable characteristic of the State is the economic exploitation of one class by another. In this sense, every State known to history is a class-State. Oppenheimer defines the State, in respect of its origin, as an institution “forced on a defeated group by a conquering group, with a view only to systematizing the domination of the conquered by the conquerors, and safeguarding itself against insurrection from within and attack from without. This domination had no other final purpose than the economic exploitation of the conquered group by the victorious group.”
Understanding the fundamental nature of the state helps to explain policies that are otherwise inexplicable. Over the last decade, the War on Terror has not made Americans safer, and in many ways has made the world vastly more dangerous for them. But it has not been a failure. The war gave the U.S. carte blanche in its effort to consolidate power in the oil-rich Middle East and central Asia. Reliable puppet governments have been installed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Additionally, the U.S. has built a sprawling network of military bases in both countries. These will allow remarkable access to the region for years to come. In these respects – and these are the only ones for which the war has been fought – the War on Terror has been a resounding success.
Similarly, while the appointment of Wall Street insiders to lead the economic recovery has done little for ordinary Americans, it has provided numerous benefits to the American ruling class. The decision immediately signaled to bank executives that they would not be held accountable for their financial crimes. To date, not a single executive has been jailed in connection with the economic meltdown, and there is little reason to believe that this will change anytime soon.
The selection of insiders has also guaranteed that Wall Street will carry on with as few profit-killing reforms as possible. The well-researched documentary Inside Job provides support for this point. It too, however, mistakenly assumes that the meltdown itself was a failure of the system. On the contrary, it was yet another wild success – CEOs lined their pockets even as they bankrupted their companies and received massive government assistance. Those intended to profit from the debacle ultimately did profit. Under a system maintained by the rich for their own benefit, that is the sole criterion necessary to judge its success or failure.