Red Scare and Reality

Communism is never far behind. Berlin, May 2016.

Communism is never far behind. Berlin, May 2016.

Pick up the New York Times on any random day, and chances are there’s something about the “unprecedented foreign intervention in American democracy,” the “Russian information attack” on the 2016 election.

From its beginnings as a failed tactic during the presidential campaign, I’ve opposed the media circus known as ‘Russiagate’. Not because I’m a fan of Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump or am clairvoyant about Russian covert actions in US elections. Rather, it’s because I see the American military-ideological system as just that: a system.

During its golden age in the Cold War, Dwight Eisenhower called the system a “complex,“ but his only real beef was with the procurements department. Ike had no doubts at all about the necessity and righeousness of supreme American military power, and he would have had little compunction about nuking a few hundred thousand Koreans to prove it.

His main problem was with large bureaucratic systems, and he saw dangers in the intersection of private industry and the large public bureaucracies dedicated to „defense“. Now, much has changed since those innocent, internet-less, Rachel Maddow-less days, but the ideological system, the heart of America’s imperial darkness, remains largely unchanged. No less than at the height of the Cold War, it is Strangelovian, all-encompassing, and a threat to human survival. Paranoia about external aggressors and internal traitors is in its DNA.

The “Russians hacked the election” obsession of the Democrats is exactly how you would expect such a system to perform at a time of crisis, shoring up core political priorities while drowning out competing modes of thought and action. Donald Trump, in a sense, is only incidental to this pre-programmed political ritual, which in one variant or another has been enacted and reenacted throughout my lifetime with monotonous regularity.

America’s power elites never seem to tire of an endless procession of Hitlers and evil empires and inflated threats requiring immediate “responses”. Hillary Clinton was the high priestess of this liturgy of the war state, while Trump, in his own bizarre and contradictory way, is viewed by powerful factions as a heretic. With Russiagate, the perennial alarmism about external threats has once again been married to paranoia about internal ones.

Ironizing Russophobia. Karl-Marx-Straße, Berlin.

This kind of thing goes all the way back to the formative years of the Republic when imported Jacobinism at home and French naval power abroad were seen as a two-pronged threat requiring both a muscular military response and a draconian domestic one. The 20th Century’s recurrent Red Scares flow seamlessly into the political flood waters of today’s Russiagate.

As many have already observed, Trump himself is a both a symptom and an accelerator of America’s imperial decay. If Kennedy was our Hollywood Marcus Aurelius, Trump is our commedia dell’arte fiddling Nero. Russiagate is our system’s immune response to the acute imperial malaise he so painfully represents.

To the career functionaries in the US foreign policy establishment– the state department, intelligence services, sundry think tanks and almost all leading journalistic outlets–Trump is seen (and not without reason) as a loose cannon and–even worse–as an embarrassment.

On the whole, the apparatchiks–the planners and engineers, scribes and curators of American Exceptionalism—are ideologically and professionally conditioned not to cast their critical gaze inward, but to be ever vigilant toward monsters lurking on the outside (“adversaries“ in the current parlance).

This habit is as old as empire itself, which is one reason why empires–and the US version is no exception–are constantly at war. Thus, the reaction of a panicked American political elite to the shock of Trump isn’t, “Hillary was terrible, the system’s broken, we’d better rethink our whole approach,” but, “Putin hacked the election! Punish Russia! Root out the traitors!”

Knowing how the Democratic Party operates when it comes to matters of war and peace, this doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. What does surprise and saddens me is how many otherwise critical and perceptive people I know on the left have fallen in line.

Fucked by Russia. Brussels, May 2016.

It’s important to state here that I have no special knowledge about whether Putin or people acting out of loyalty to Putin or people who once worked with Putin or once shared a Black Sea dacha with Putin intervened or schemed to intervene or hacked or tried to hack the last US election. (But there are ample reasons to be mighty skeptical.)

In the postwar period, the United States interfered decisively, often by covert and illicit means, in about 80 elections worldwide, not counting (!) coups and other violent interventions. All the indignant posturing about Russia attacking our democracy by the system’s liberal guardians is, as Noam Chomsky laconically observed, a joke.

If the Russians actually did the worst things they’re accused of doing–passing purloined Democratic Party communications on to Wikileaks and trumpeting their contents on social media–that’s pretty trivial compared to what the United States is up to in any number of countries today.

More importantly, among the many force vectors that led to Trump’s surprise victory in 2016, the Putin factor is the one that should matter the least to anybody interested in why an ignorant xenophobic gangster could get within spitting distance of the White House in the first place. Having to point that out at all makes me slightly nauseous.

As a leftist, however, I think it’s important to be clear on the Putin question, which might also be called the “adversary” question. (Wikipedia: “Satan (Hebrew: שָּׂטָן‎‎ satan, meaning “enemy” or “adversary”; Arabic: شيطان‎‎ shaitan, meaning; “astray”, “distant”, or sometimes “devil”) is a figure appearing in the texts of the Abrahamic religions who brings evil and temptation, and is known as the deceiver who leads humanity astray…“)

On the one hand, there’s the predictable reflex on the right and among establishment Democrats to label anybody who’s skeptical of the Putinophobic norm, like me, a Kremlin stooge or a Putin apologist.

The way we were. May Day flyers, Berlin.

On the other hand, there is a strong tendency in the opposite direction among leftists who haven’t quite gotten past the enemy-of-my-enemy-must-be-a-hero stage of psycho-political development.

Stephen Cohen is right about many things when it comes to Putin demonology: the outrageous exaggerations, the two-dimensional caricaturing, and often enough the mendacity of it. But this was no less true of US war propaganda against the German Kaiser a hundred years ago, and that didn’t make Wilhelm II a model for progressive politics or the leader of a “resistance axis”.

Much of what is awful about both Trump and the National Security ghouls who oppose Trump is also true of Putin. Translated into American political terms, Putin is somewhere between paleo and alt on the far right-wing end of the spectrum. He is the very embodiment of both clerical reaction and crony capitalism, and any leftist who doesn’t understand this just hasn’t bothered to look.

In fact, the situation as a whole in Moscow may even be worse than the mess we face in Washington; if Putin should lose power, it won’t be to make room for the second coming of Gorbachev or Bukharin, but very possibly for someone much more deserving of the devil moniker. Putin faces constant political pressure, not from the left, but from the right, and is seen by influential Russian “patriots” as more than a tad too conciliatory toward Washington. This is one more reason to get off the “Putin hacked my election” choo-choo train before it plows over any number of foreseeable precipices.

Of course, with or without leftist approval, the New Cold War spirals on. Almost every day brings news of less dialogue and more militarization in US-Russia relations.

In July, with spectacularly little public scrutiny and near-totalitarian unanimity, Congress passed its veto-proof anti-Russian, anti-Iranian, anti-North Korean sanctions, thus cementing low-level economic warfare against Moscow into the architecture of US foreign policy for years to come.

A more sonorous self-indictment of the Democratic Party is hard to imagine: in their Russophobic frenzy, every single Democratic lawmaker voted to undo Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, the Iran nuclear deal. (The adversary had many faces!) This watershed moment was barely a blip on my Facebook feed.

So how to take stock of all of this from the perspective of a principled anti-imperialism which seeks to avoid the pitfalls of dogma?

If some on the hard left err on the side of pro-Putinism more often than I would like, this is small beer compared to the complicity of what might be called the ‘Fuzzy Left’ in fanning the flames of the new Cold War. The number of prominent journalists who’ve been critical of the Russophobic media rage—Max Blumenthal, Matt Taibbi, Jeremy Scahill, Glenn Greenwald, Joe Conason, Tucker Carlson, Robert Parry…—is barely enough for a small cocktail party.

Outside of the hardcore Trumposphere itself, you have to be either very far to the left indeed or quite a thick-skinned contrarian to challenge the reigning orthodoxies about Putin, the 2016 election, and the Russian “attack on our democracy”. We desperately need more, not less, skepticism about a system that continues to generate wars and conflicts like a Russian “bot” factory makes memes. We need to see the ideological mechanisms of this system for what they are and oppose them, implacably.

If you consider yourself of or on the lLeft, if you’re interested in countering militarism and promoting peace, it’s high time to get your priorities straight on Putin, Trump and the new Cold War. If, on the other hand, you think you can have your Russiagate while also “#resisting” its military-ideological consequences, I’m afraid you are living in a fantasy land.

Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit.