1. YOU WANT HOLOCAUST WITH THAT?
About the Author
Progress. In place of Obama’s Change We Can Believe In, we have Trump’s Make America Great Again. And the rich, as usual, are to get richer, and the poor to get sick, become homeless, starve, or shatter in endless wars. The road map?
Though frowned upon as a thought-crime, the comparison of our current American trajectory with the tactics and strategy of Germany in the 1930s is striking. We would do well to study this era carefully for a possible glimpse of our own future. Those targeted are no longer just our dispossessed, reviled and outcast – our “Other”, our “jews” -- but much of the American (and of course world) population.
The attempt to exterminate European Jewry during the Nazi era was, in many ways, as unique as Jewish culture asserts. Never before had an organized, industrial state targeted a population for complete annihilation, ruthlessly and efficiently pursued even within its “civil” codes and activities. But to think of the Holocaust as a completely unique act, restricted to 20th century German antisemitism, is to limit it unduly, to make it unavailable as evidence and warning about tendencies in our own place, our own time.
For it would seem that every major thought pattern, every cultural institution that fueled the Nazi holocaust is present and empowered in the United States today. Safeguards against catastrophic outcomes are few and weak. “It can’t happen here”? Maybe. But with so many elements brewing together, and no visible controls to dampen the flux, there is no predicting in what direction the reaction will run.
In recent memory, a civilization as culturally advanced as our own underwent a society-wide suspension of morality. Jews were the target. At present, the next set of domestic victims has already been chosen: the middle class, the foreign, the poor and unruly. Ready… aim…
THE ONCE AND FUTURE PERPETRATORS
Much of the current political agenda is dominated by what is popularly known as the “extreme right”. Clinton and Obama were instrumental in moving the Democratic Party in that direction, and now, the quantum leap of Trump. Tea Parties and religious fundamentalism nourish the “shift to the right” within the population at large.
Critics have unanimously deemed right wing motives as “greedy” and “mean-spirited”, but such labels obscure the positive agenda involved -- an agenda described in most detail by the Frankfurt School in its attempt to analyze the roots of German fascism. Then and now; the descriptions are eerily alike.
It is reasonable to assume that our leaders and their followers are nice enough folks who love their children and grandchildren, and hope to pass on to them a better world. What is it, then, that drives them to outlandish and seemingly heartless proposals concerning immigrants and “the 99%”, including, sometimes, themselves?
[_ In each event -- in the living act, the undoubted deed -- there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the moulding of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. _]
While differing in detail, many right-wing positions are driven by belief systems characteristic of what The Frankfurt School called “the Authoritarian Personality”, whose main characteristic is the urgent need for order. When ALLES IN ORDNUNG becomes the highest value, the consequences are predictable.
For the authoritarian personality:
1. Powerful leaders are needed to keep society in line and restrict it to conventional, middle-class values. Exaggerated assertions of toughness and strength become the norm. Trickle-down theories are designed to protect the powerful -- in the interest of all.
2. Democracy becomes a threat and must be limited. A need to control unpredictable “excess” democracy has guided foreign and economic policy throughout America’s history. The pattern of supporting dictatorial strong-men is likely driven as much by rage for order and fear of chaos as by a selfish need to maximize profits. So great is the need for predictable order that maximal profits are sacrificed.
3. Individualism becomes suspect, a negative value to be stamped out. “Difference” means unpredictability, and fear of an unpredictable, uncontrollable “Other” spawns all the “isms” which rampage today: racism, sexism, classism, antisemitism, anti-immigrant, anti-muslim rage, xenophobia. Nature itself becomes an uncertain enemy to be conquered and subdued.
4. The psycho-sexual chaos at the core of an authoritarian personality simultaneously fascinates and repels. Rigid moralism seems the most secure protection against anarchy and chaos. There is exaggerated concern with sexual “goings-on”. At the same time, unconscious emotional impulses are projected outward, and the world is seen as a wild and dangerous place in which worst-case scenarios abound.
5. Fear and guilt about chaotic thoughts within and anarchy without is so potentially threatening that psychic numbing is a typical response, with emotional dissociation from the consequences of action. Knee-jerk “patriotism” in response to moral questions is an effective defense mechanism. “Support the Troops” blindfolds the eyes against mass incineration. Such defensive control of information minimizes compassion for victims.
6. A culture of punishment follows hard upon. Offenders against order must be strictly punished. The very same heartmind is both pro-life and pro-death penalty. But the sanctity of life is secondary: the important thing is punishment. Tender-mindedness is for “bleeding-heart liberals”.
While no political leader or follower may display every characteristic above, they are all on fine collective display in the current Trumpian Zeitgeist -- as they were in Nazi Germany.
Is it just that “people are no damn good”, or is their behavior created by social conditions surrounding them?
In her study of Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt noted that the greatest problem the Nazis faced was “how to overcome...the animal pity by which all normal men are affected in the presence of physical suffering.” Most of the German perpetrators were were by and large not sadists or moral degenerates or even political fanatics -- yet they became conscious collaborators in the process of mass murder. How was it possible to create torturers out of next door neighbors? (How could our clean-cut young boys napalm other humans, or target them via drones?)
In the early sixties, A Yale psychologist named Stanley Milgram began a series of experiments which sought to clarify these problems. The basic question was narrowed to “if an experimenter tells a subject to act with increasing severity against another person, under what conditions will the subject comply, and under what conditions will he disobey?” Subjects were recruited from all walks of life to “help us complete a study of memory and learning.” An actor-scientist greeted pairs of volunteers, and lots were drawn to pick who would be the “teacher” and who would be the “learner”. The subject would always choose the “teacher” slip (all the slips said “teacher”); the other “volunteer” was a plant who then became the “learner”/victim. The “scientist” explained that there has been some association of punishment with learning, but that there had never been any quantitative studies on how much punishment would give the best results.
After orientation, the “learner” was strapped into a chair in the next room, and an electrode glued to his wrist. The “teacher” could see and communicate with him via a glass panel and microphone. In front of the “teacher” was a bogus control panel consisting of 30 switches enabling him to deliver shocks from 15 to 450 volts in 15 volt increments. The groups of switches were marked Slight Shock, Moderate Shock, Strong Shock, Very Strong Shock, Intense Shock, Extreme Intensity Shock, Danger: Severe Shock. Two switches after this last designation were simply marked XXX.
The basic experimental design was this: the “teacher” would read groups of word pairs to the “learner”, and then ask him to correctly identify the pairing word from lists of four. If the “learner” made a mistake, the “teacher” was to administer a shock. For each mistake, the “teacher” was instructed to “move one level higher on the shock generator”. The victim (who, of course, was feeling no shock at all) greeted the increasing “voltage levels” with a full range of response, indicating no discomfort until the 75 volt shock was administered. At 120 volts he would shout to the experimenter that the shocks were becoming painful. Painful groans at 135 volts. At 150 volts. he would cry out, “Get me out of here! I refuse to go on!” By 180 volts, “I can’t stand the pain”, and by 270, agonizing screams. After 300 volts he would no longer provide answers to the test questions. The “teacher” was told that no answer constituted a wrong answer, and was instructed to raise the shock level.
How far would these “teachers” go? In spite of there being no coercion or threat (as there was in Nazi Germany), and without any animosity toward the victim (unlike Nazi Germany), these average Americans far, far exceeded the expectations of all psychologists in their obedient compliance with instructions. Despite the fact that many questioned or even protested what they were doing, a substantial proportion continued to the last level of shock despite the “learner’s” screams. Almost 2/3 of the subjects -- ordinary people drawn from working, managerial and professional classes -- were “obedient subjects”, willing to go to almost any length at the command of an authority. Their explanations at post-experiment interview echoed those of Adolf Eichmann -- “I was just doing my job. I was doing what I was told. I was only doing my duty.”
Milgram was profoundly disturbed by his findings, (as were many members of the scientific community who attacked him personally.)
What is the limit of such obedience? At many points we attempted to establish a boundary. Cries from the victim were inserted: they were not good enough. The victim claimed heart trouble; subjects continued to shock him on command. The victim pleaded to be let free, and his answers no longer registered on the signal box; subjects continued to shock him. At the outset we had not conceived that such drastic procedures would be needed to generate disobedience, and each step was added only as the ineffectiveness of the earlier techniques became clear. The final effort to establish a limit was the Touch-Proximity condition [where the “learner” sat, screaming, shoulder to shoulder with the subject.] But the very first subject in this condition subdued the victim on command, and proceeded to the highest shock level. A quarter of the subjects in this condition performed similarly.
[_ The results, as seen and felt in the laboratory, are to this author disturbing. They raise the possibility that human nature or -- more specifically -- the kind of character produced in America democratic society, cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority. A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority. _]
In spite of Milgram’s despair, the findings did have their bright side. A number of experiments were done in which the subjects were exposed to several experimenters who disagreed among themselves and argued about continuing the shocks. Another series was performed not at Yale, with its aura of authority, but in a minimal office, under the auspices of the fictitious, unknown, “Bridgeport Research Associates”. A third series was performed in which the “teachers” were not instructed to increase the shock level with each wrong answer, but could choose their own levels throughout the experiment. The outcomes of these series was illuminating: given any hint of disagreement among the authorities, subjects immediately discarded their slavish obedience, and were no longer willing to engage in behavior they found morally questionable. When authority became questionable (“Bridgeport” vs. Yale), compliance dropped significantly. And without prompting from authority, “teachers” maintained shocks well under the discomfort level of the victim.
The casting off of “animal pity” was sustainable only under seamless monolithic authority. For all its fragility, it seems that it is not human nature per se that is malevolent, but that human malevolence, at least in part, is socially constructed. Under the right system, even here and now in the United States, obedience to authority can prevail against the “better instincts” of the population. The trouble is that such a system is currently alive and well throughout the land.
It is commonly assumed that outbreaks of bestial violence -- the Holocaust, or what we have seen in Rwanda, Syria, Afghanistan or Israel’s attacks on Palestine -- are the result of primitive eruptions into a civilization insufficient to contain them. If people could only become “more civilized”, there would be no such behavior. But what if civilization itself were the problem -- not the solution?
Again and again we have to confront the difficult fact that Nazi Germany was an advanced industrial culture quite like our own. The death machines were put into operation by people quite like us, living in comparable surroundings. Certified architects and engineers in well-lit rooms drew up plans for crematoria. Government bureaucrats, some trained in Kant and Hegel, purchased tickets for each passenger in the cattle cars. Had there been computers, there would have been excellent data bases. Nazi soldiers played Beethoven sonatas to entertain the troops, to lift their spirits and help them return to guard duty at the camps. Out of this modern, rational society, with a history of the highest culture, the Holocaust was born. Can we ever understand this? What can it tell us about our own situation?
One of the most crucial insights here came from a man who died well before Hitler came to power. Contemplating the industrialization of late 19th century Germany, Max Weber, “the father of sociology”, came to the conclusion that “Reason” -- the ideal of the Enlightenment -- was evolving dangerously into Zweckrationalität -- instrumental reason, reason driven by a goal. In the service of its goals, modern society was becoming efficiently bureaucratic and scientific, but was losing its sense of values. In fact, “value-free” had become a test of objectivity and scientific legitimacy, as technique replaced moral responsibility.
Recent times have certainly proven Weber correct. Marxists and postmodern thinkers have taken Weber many steps further, as they deconstruct the goals we have inherited, and the stories we tell ourselves. Whose goals are they? If society is a garden, who decides on who gets weeded?
The important point is that Weber’s analysis of modern society -- clearly increasingly applicable as the years push on -- in no way excludes the possibility of another Nazi state. Nothing in the rules of the reigning instrumental rationality would disqualify Holocaust methods of social engineering, nor would its actions even seem improper. After all, social problems must be solved.
Milgram, too, found Weberian mechanisms at play in his subjects. To avoid confronting the victim’s pain, his “teachers” became absorbed in the technical aspects of voltage control and memory testing. “The experiment requires that you continue” was often sufficient explanation to overcome any hesitations. “Scientific truth” as defined by “authority” was a goal so persuasive that its perceived legitimacy overwhelmed humane behavior.
Outside the laboratory, for instance in the military, we find parallel mechanisms at work. Boot camp is not so much a training in military technique as it is in absolute acceptance of monolithic authority. Patriotism requires such acceptance. Once in the field, attention to technical details blinds the perpetrator to the effects of his violence. The bombing sequence in Dr. Strangelove is a brilliant satire on the efficient calm of men about to destroy the world. Similar comparisons can easily be made with the instrumental rationality of the corporate board room, where the lives of millions are part of the calculus of maximizing profit.
I know one is not allowed to use the word “nazism” in any discussion of current practices, that the holocaust is unique, etc., etc. -- but if you don’t see the similarities between the structures put into place in Germany in the mid- and late-1930s and those evolving here, now, well then, you don’t see structural similarities.
What were the moves the Nazis evolved to “overcome animal pity” with regard to Jewish victims?
Step 1. Defining the enemy. Jewishness was clearly and legally defined as part of a problem. Thus the Jews were made “other” to the rest of the population.
Step 2. Eliminating the enemy from the economy. Jews were not allowed to work in state-affiliated institutions. Jewish stores were boycotted and vandalized. “Otherness” was thereby increased, as the Jews were forced from the normal productive economy, and were now an ever-increasing problem -- and not just by definition.
Step 3. Ostracism by custom and law. Many other discriminatory laws were put into place. No Jews allowed, here or there, this place or that.
Step 4. Removal from view. Ghettos were created to wall the problem off from the rest of the population. Jews thus became less visible. When they began to disappear, there was often little to notice. As intolerable conditions developed in the ghettos, inhuman measures were justified as humane. Jews were killed in “acts of mercy” -- in order to “spare them the agony of famine”. In deliberately intolerable conditions, the stage was set for even more radical steps.
Step 5. Transport to slave labor camps, using these “outsiders” to support the economy.
Step 6. Transport to death camps. The “Final Solution”.
Tactics: Ostracism as a policy in Nazi Germany
To better make some later comparisons, let me provide more detail about Step 3 above: “other discriminatory laws”.
In his hair-raising book, Nazi Justiz (Praeger 1995), Richard Miller describes the gradual, multifaceted ways in which Jews were turned from productive members of society into an kind of “living dead” who were permitted to wander through society, but forbidden to take part in it. The mass killings in the camps was only a late development, the logical “final” successor of many incremental “solutions” inflicted along the way on an increasingly desperate people. In a “time of peace”, a variety of local and national laws were passed, with due deliberation. Across the country , jot by innovative jot, legal and social restrictions fell into place which sealed the victims’ fate.
The movement began with “unofficial” boycotting of Jewish businesses or professionals. Boycotts spread to those who patronized Jews in any way, thus taking goods and wages away from good German citizens. Having a street conversation with a Jew could lead to charges of “race pollution” and “civic disloyalty”, and perhaps to being paraded through town, with a sign around one’s neck. Such “unofficial” boycotts were peppered with equally “unofficial” violence, of which Kristallnacht was the most coordinated example. Naturally, there was no police protection.
Having recognized a “mandate” from the people, governments began to act. Place by place, Jews were not allowed in parks, theaters, libraries, museums, sports stadia, beaches, athletic and social clubs. They could not be guests in hotels, or get service at restaurants. One profession after another banned Jews from being licensed. Jews would no longer be granted permits to open retail stores, or be allowed into blue or white collar unions or the jobs they controlled. They couldn’t be patent agents or lawyers, tax consultants or swimming instructors, lifeguards, jockeys, actors, lottery salesmen, stock brokers, antique dealers, archivists. They couldn’t rent out park chairs, or distribute motion pictures, or deal in art or literary works. They were prevented from dealing in currency, engineering construction projects, selling guns. No Jew could be a detective, private guard, accountant, or work in a credit agency. No Jew could be a tourist guide, a peddler, auctioneer, or real estate agent, or manage a factory, house, estate, or land. Needless to say, all the new business and newly opened job opportunities went to Aryans, vastly increasing the popularity of the Nazi regime. Jobs, jobs, jobs. And housing.
In areas where Jews were not yet banned, other ways were found to shut them down. Before real estate licenses were outlawed for Jews, tax authorities refused to deal with Jewish agents, leaving few property owners interested in hiring them. Sugar was cut off to Jewish bakers and candy-makers, effectively destroying their businesses. Legal Jewish newsstands would be refused newspapers; Jewish textile managers could no longer get raw materials. Jewish businesses could not put ads in commercial directories, newspapers, on billboards or the radio. Eventually all employment was restricted except particularly disagreeable tasks: cleaning public toilets and sewage plants, jobs at rag and bone works were considered possibly “suitable” for Jews. Outside of such work, Jews had to somehow fend for themselves.
How could even that be made more difficult? Travel bans and invalidation of passports were obvious. But how about no parking for Jews? Special license plates to identify Jewish cars for special harassment. Soon enough, prohibition of drivers licenses, and then restriction from public transportation. Impoverished Jews could not rent their homes, sublet, or sell. Retirement benefits and contracted pensions were cancelled, as were all insurance policies. Jewish students were not allowed to take finals, and so couldn’t complete their schooling. All student loans had to be repaid within 2 weeks, regardless of contractual payment schedules; those in default were subject to police action. Jewish streets were not cleaned, nor were other municipal services available. German police, when present at all, were an occupying army, and beatings and attacks were common. Many main sections of towns became off-limits to Jews, and any remnants of Jewish culture came under attack: Jewish art and music were censored as “decadent”, and even jazz was attacked as “a barbarian invasion supported by Jews.”
Because Jews were to be restricted from so many areas, they needed to be easily identified. Rush-hour passengers were not about to tolerate checking IDs of every boarding passenger. Eventually the yellow star was required, with strict punishment for any Jew who did not wear one in public. Jews were forbidden to name their children with “Aryan sounding names”, and had to adopt the middle names “Israel” or “Sarah”, and use these names when identifying themselves.
Germany has long been known as a land of “law and order”. But Jews could not use the justice system to thwart clearly illegal onslaughts. All courts were packed with government appointees to enforce, not judge, official policy. The object of the law was to protect the state, not the individual citizen. If Jews were a menace to the state, then all laws oppressing them, were both legal and just.
Courts built rulings on Nazi party resolutions, and took their philosophical guidance from Hitler speeches. In 1934 Goering complained that defendants still had so many rights that convictions were being impeded. Naturally, Jewish defendants were at an extreme disadvantage. Jewish lawyers were barred from court; Aryan lawyers could not serve Jews. Consequently, Jews had to represent themselves against highly trained adversaries. Judges were instructed to view Jewish witnesses “with extreme caution”, and no verdict was to be passed when a sentence would have to be based entirely on Jewish testimony.
Just in case there were any legislative objection to these judicial proceedings, Hitler pushed through the “Enabling Act” which allowed his handpicked cabinet to make laws having the same validity as any passed by the Reichstag, even ones disregarding the Constitution. The circle was closed, complete and tight. The living dead would soon become the dead -- period.
Laws are being made here, too. And Presidential Enabling Acts, aka “signing statements”. And court seats being filled.
The cast of characters is somewhat changed. Instead of Jews, we have the poor and soon-to-be-poor, the homeless, the disabled, the aged, the immigrant “Other” -- an open-ended, potentially unruly, group, getting larger with each job loss and foreclosure.
We have no overt Nazis, only Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Both parties agree that the foremost task is to eliminate the deficit, and both agree that the main hit will be on services to the poor, without tapping the military budget or corporate welfare. Both agree that taxes for the most part need to be cut -- it’s good for getting re-elected. Asses and Pachyderms (from Gr: “thickskinned”) may argue over numbers or priorities, but the fundamental assumptions -- and the potential victims -- are precisely the same. And outside the beltway is a population of Good Americans, voting their pocketbooks, not paying much attention to details evolving inside. How could they? All they know is what the government- and corporate-controlled media choose to tell them.
All the propensities of the Authoritarian Personality are still at large in this social consciousness, along with the tendency to behave as Milgram’s subjects did with respect to “legitimately constituted” authority. Weber’s analysis accurately describes what is going on today: bureaucracy, science, efficiency, and value-free thought running the show in the interest of “Progress” and “Freedom and Democracy” -- and maximization of profit.
Social forces and individual thought habits are distressingly similar to those in Nazi Germany. The poor and the “Others” are as despised as were the Jews. Helping them is as verboten. There are no cultural safeguards in place which would prevent a holocaust-like social cannibalism, a society-wide suspension of morality with regard to the designated “problem”.
There would be no help on a global level, either, since every national state claims the right to dispose of its citizens as it will, starving them, imprisoning them, executing them as it finds necessary. The United States refuses to recognize judgments of the World Court except when such judgments suit its purposes, and refuses to ratify several international treaties concerning human rights. International objectors like Amnesty International are delegitimized as “interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign nations”. National sovereignty is built into the United Nations. Besides, who would take on the United States, militarily or economically for any mere human rights issue?
Thus, all the pieces are in place for another holocaust -- this time against the poor and “Other”. Native racism adds to the potential, since -- no surprise -- many of the poor are immigrants and people of color, and code words overlap: “End welfare as we know it” = “Get the minorities under control.” Hence the ominous double significance of our move toward prison expansion. The vast preponderance of prisoners are poor people of color.
A comparative check on where we are now in the six historical steps above is sobering -- and frightening.
Step 1. Defining the enemy. The poor are clearly defined as “the problem”. Not the profit-driven economy. Not the culture of violence. Not the controlled information system. Studies focus on the pathology of the “underclass”. The Poor are the problem. They are “other” to “normal Americans”. Consequently they must to be “dealt with”. Highest priority: “excess” population, a drain on the nation, unviable.
Step 2. Eliminating the enemy from the economy. By national policy, there are fewer and fewer jobs available to the poor, and fewer and fewer salaries that could raise a family out of poverty. Wall Street is bailed out, while money for public sector employment is denied, and corporate profits recover, with CEOs reaping massive benefits at taxpayer expense. Education funding is similarly squelched, so that the problem army of the poor can only swell. “Otherness” is increased as the media focus in on the predictably rising problems of crime, the inner city, and immigrant workers, ignoring problems elsewhere, and their root causes.
Step 3. Ostracism by custom and law. It is frightening to make such a list, but almost every step taken by the Third Reich has some parallel here and now -- with no built-in limits:
-- Laws passed by Congress can be overridden by executive orders, presidential “findings”, National Security directives, or simply aborted by not disbursing committed funds.
-- Courts are routinely packed with obedient federal appointees. The current composition of the Supreme Court is the biggest scandal of all. Legal rights of poor defendants are being systematically reduced, and money for good lawyers diminished.
-- The current push in Congress is for law to serve the state and its rich financiers at the expense of individuals. Corporate personhood triumphs. Surveillance technology and “anti-terrorism” stand guard at the gates. The government moves to limit consumer and environmental protection. These laws are being made deliberately, without even pretending to be a democratic response to the will of the people. There is increasing governmental readiness to evade constitutional law.
-- The many Nazi restrictions on employment are all replaced by the fact that -- for the poor and uneducated above all -- there are simply no jobs. Affirmative action is increasingly questioned. The situation has worsened catastrophically with jobs exported and capital flight, and its attendant dog-eat-dog resentments. With no money for private transportation, no money for parking, and increasingly expensive, inadequate public transportation, the poor are deprived of the mobility necessary to find and maintain employment -- even if there were employment to be had.
-- Municipal services are neglected or abandoned in poor neighborhoods, and the police remain an occupying army, protecting and serving the threatened rich. Consequently, living conditions and ghettos become ever more intolerable.
-- Student loans have exorbitant conditions at the same time that tuitions are skyrocketing. Thus education increasingly excludes the poor as effectively as discriminatory laws did the Jews. Without an educated workforce, the vicious spiral continues downward.
-- “Economics of scale” are driving out smaller, local businesses in favor of large corporate operations -- if they even choose to locate in poorer neighborhoods.
Remember: such policies are not accidents. They are designed and signed by upper-class men and women, and approved by well-prepped voters.
Step 4. Removal from view. In addition to long-existing ghettoization, foreclosures on housing toxically mortgaged, and increasing inter-racial suspicion, many municipalities are now enacting draconian laws to “get the poor out from under our noses.” Sleeping in public spaces, panhandling, even accepting free food have been criminalized. Here in Burlington, Vermont, an ordinance was floated to make it illegal to sit in a street, or even lean against a building. When there are no more poor on the streets or in the subways, how will we know when there are no more poor at all? As the plight of the poor is made ever more intolerable, ever less visible, radical solutions become ever more thinkable.
Steps 5 and 6 -- slave labor and death camps have not yet been literally established. Nevertheless there is recognizable social movement in that direction. Prisons are currently the greatest growth industry, and there is increasing practice of substituting prison labor for outside workers -- at substantially lower wages. As someone once said to me, “Why should I support those criminals? Let ‘em earn their keep.” (She would also kill everyone on death row right away, so that her taxes wouldn’t be used to support murderers.)
And the attachment to capital punishment continues. Less legal protection for prisoners, less chance for appeal, more designated-capital crimes, destruction of habeus corpus and Miranda protections in the name of “fighting terrorism”; micro-fascism at the airport, greater surveillance, Obama giving himself permission to assassinate Americans without trial, Trump doubling down on all the above…
Given the above array of conditions, what can we surmise about the likely American future?
There is a scent of pre-holocaust in the air. It is a mood, a direction faced, a lingo, haze of assumptions. And look! -- there is a Jack-in-the-box with a box’s six sides: authoritarianism, consumo-conformity, efficiency, moralism, patriotism, and a penchant for punishment.
Turn the crank:
All around the mulberry bush
the monkey chased the weasel,
the monkey thought ‘twas all in fun…
Now just hold it there. What will pop out at the very next move?
We don’t really know. The mind rebels. Tens of millions of children in poverty experiencing a “greater sense of personal responsibility”? Welfare cut-offs flooding an already non-existent job market getting people “back to work”? Or giving them back their “self-esteem”?
There is discontinuity in the curve of thought here -- except for one constant -- it is definitively the poor and “Other” that are poised to fall off the line into god-knows-what abyss. And the numbers of those impoverished are growing as the middle class shrinks away into unknown territory.
The number of officially poor is now approaching 50 million, higher than at any time on record. The most vulnerable families are those headed by single mothers, and among them the hardest hit are those headed by single women of color. Two-thirds are employed. But in addition to chronic low wages, many single mothers have seen their work hours cut in the recession. “.
Where have the jobs gone, the money? The current income gap is the largest its been since the late 1920s, the result of a long series of policy decisions by legislators bought and paid for by the high-class bandits making out. The race to the bottom is fueled by a race to the top. The dynamics seem irreversible.
The assault on America is a bipartisan operation. Whatever their deceitful rhetoric, neither party is willing to place serious limits on corporate speculation and profitability. Neither will question the need for public austerity and private profit, nor the enormous damage done by the military industrial complex.
Trump’s budget is most importantly a call to continue tax cuts for the rich to grow the income gap and protect its well-heeled beneficiaries. Secondarily, it is a plan to repeal even the pathetic Affordable Health Care Act, itself written by lobbyists from insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Republicans have blocked benefits for homeless vets, health care for 911 first responders, a jobs bill that gives tax breaks to companies hiring new employees, an act to ensure women are paid the same wages as men, have tried to block unemployment benefits extension, and have succeeded in blocking stricter regulations for financial institutions. Their ultimate goal, often stated, is privatization of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The Democrats have put up no fight in the interest of “compromise”. Is there a pattern here?
Such an immiseration project must be protected by spreading fear of “terrorism”, and the use of illegal surveillance now openly practiced, with sweeping new regulations for the internet. Robert Mueller, ex-director of the FBI has stated that, “There is a continuum between those who would express dissent and those who would do a terrorist act.” One spokesperson from an FBI/police “information fusion center” claimed that the protest of a war against “international terrorism” is itself “a terrorist act”. The USAPATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism -- 1st prize for acronyms) stands behind him. And for good measure, Obama came up with approved “kill lists” of suspected terrorists -- including Americans -- he claims he can exterminate with impunity, and has handed the capacity over to Trump. The final solution, no doubt.
Many of the classic structures of a totalitarian state are already in place in contemporary America, Land of the Free. Many new ones, too -- modern and post-modern. Official lawlessness no longer bothers to hide itself, and is tolerated or approved by the population at large. Criminal investigations into state crimes are blocked in the interests of “national security”. Checks and balances among the three branches of government have been manipulated into a seamless, self-validifying whole. Make that four, as the media becomes ever more embedded in the corporate beltway.
But while totalitarianism is almost certainly a necessary context for holocaust, genocide, nakba, shoah, it is not a sufficient condition: the cooperation of the population is necessary. And that is where the Milgram Experiments come in. When the authorities say “do it!”, a population of authoritarian personalities, born and bred, will do it.
American murder, massive and limited, even if openly criminal, seems to have widespread support by a population ready to lash out at designated victims. Americans know about torture of detainees in hidden prisons. They know of American slaughter in Iraq and Afghanistan, even if they are only discovering such activities in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and well-supported in Palestine. Hey, freedom isn’t free. They know, too, about the slave labor of prisoners, and of undocumented workers, frightened and hiding. Let the torture, war and racist attacks proceed, I guess, if USA is once again to be Number One. Gott mit uns!
Should some object, they, like Germans in the thirties, will find no levers of change in their much-vaunted political process, all of whose candidates stand behind the American project of victory, “democracy”, and control of resources. As Jay Gould said back in the 1880’s, “I don’t care who they vote for as long as I get to pick the candidates.”
And those candidates are -- with notable exceptions -- no dummies. They can see as clearly as anyone the general direction in which we are headed. Why else reduce or remove the safety net for Americans while pouring trillions into armaments , corporations, and banks? A group -- the poor and Other, Muslim immigrants above all -- has been identified as the problem and the need for a “solution” given highest priority -- Step 1, above.
Now we are poised at the edge of the precipice. “Terrorism” and its attendant and well-tended-to fear make Step 2 certain: they virtually guarantee that most people will not be able to make the transition into productive work. They further assure galloping immiseration of the Other as they are cut off from food and cash assistance, childcare and nutrition for their children. The consequent desperation will require more policing, desperate, more “final” and effective solutions, solutions which can ensure that the misery of the poor does not inflict itself on the top 10%.
Steps 1 and 2 have been taken. Steps 3 and 4 are underway. The smell of holocaust is in the air. Our civilization provides no safeguards. The Zweckrationalität dynamic described by Max Weber -- the very one that nourished the Jewish holocaust in a most civilized, advanced-industrial Germany -- still rules. Is it realistic to say “It can’t happen here”?
We have the Jewish holocaust behind us, and the words “Never Again” engraved in our collective heartminds. But our own history -- previous and subsequent to the holocaust is not reassuring. Native Americans were wiped out to make room for middle America. “Pioneers” were rewarded by the government with land deeds for expropriating Native American territory and violating treaties. It is not necessary to go over the “social suspension of morality” with respect to African Americans, or the atrocities committed during the Civil War.
In our own time, we have seen World War II with its mass firebombings and atomic attacks, then ten more wars, wiping out gooks and towel-heads with high-tech weapons. They don’t value life like we do. I don’t have much faith in home-grown American morality resisting commands to solve a problem by slaughter.
Richard Miller notes that
Most Germans did not believe the final steps would be taken. They saw each measure as a discrete event and failed to understand that each step prepared the way for the next. The SS Journal Das Schwarze Korps noted in 1938, “What is radical today is moderate tomorrow.” In 1933 the Nazis had no plan to kill all the Jews, and even militants would have shrunk in horror from such a suggestion. Gradually, over the next decade, “reasonable people” found that they had to become a little harsher. By 1943, the context of the war against Jews had escalated to the point where warriors could blandly pass bureaucratic memos back and forth about behavior that would have seemed unconscionable in 1933. “ (Nazi Justiz, p.3)
Our leaders are now passing such notes, and setting in place such laws concerning our current “Others”. Proposals are being negotiated which would have horrified officials of earlier administrations. Will we allow a similar denouement? It can happen here.
Marc Estrin is a writer, cellist and political activist living in Burlington, Vermont.