D.9 What is the relationship between wealth polarisation and authoritarian government?

We have previously noted the recent increase in the rate of wealth polarisation, with its erosion of working-class living standards. This process has been referred to by Noam Chomsky as "Third-Worldisation." It is appearing in a particularly acute form in the US -- the "richest" industrialised nation which also has the highest level of poverty, since it is the most polarised -- but the process can be seen in other "advanced" industrial nations as well, particularly in the UK.

Third World governments are typically authoritarian, since harsh measures are required to suppress rebellions among their impoverished and discontented masses. Hence "Third-Worldisation" implies not only economic polarisation but also increasingly authoritarian governments. As Philip Slater puts it, a large, educated, and alert "middle class" (i.e. average income earners) has always been the backbone of democracy, and anything that concentrates wealth tends to weaken democratic institutions [A Dream Deferred, p. 68].

If this is true, then along with increasing wealth polarisation in the US we should expect to see signs of growing authoritarianism. This hypothesis is confirmed by numerous facts, including the following: continuing growth of an "imperial presidency" (concentration of political power); extralegal operations by the executive branch (e.g. the Iran-Contra scandal, the Grenada and Panama invasions); skyrocketing incarceration rates; more official secrecy and censorship; the rise of the Far Right; more police and prisons; FBI requests for massive wiretapping capability; and so on. Public support for draconian measures to deal with crime reflect the increasingly authoritarian mood of citizens beginning to panic in the face of an ongoing social breakdown, which has been brought about, quite simply, by ruling-class greed that has gotten out of hand -- a fact that is carefully obscured by the media.

One might think that representative democracy and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms would make an authoritarian government impossible in the United States and other liberal democratic nations with similar constitutional "protections" for civil rights. In reality, however, the declaration of a "national emergency" would allow the central government to ignore constitutional guarantees with impunity and set up what Hannah Arendt calls "invisible government" -- mechanisms allowing an administration to circumvent constitutional structures while leaving them nominally in place (see section D.9.2).

In this regard it is important to remember that the Nazis created a "shadow government" in Germany even as the "democratic" Weimar constitution continued to operate in theory. Hitler at first implemented his programmes through the constitution, using existing government agencies and departments. Later he set up Nazi Party bureaus that duplicated the functions of the Weimar government, allowing the latter to remain in place but without power, while the Nazi bureaus (especially the SS, and of course Hitler himself) held the actual power. The Communist Party in Russia created a similar invisible government after the Bolshevik revolution, leaving the revolutionary constitution as well as the government bureaucracy in place while Communist Party agencies and the General Secretary wielded the real power [See Marilyn French, Beyond Power, p. 349].

If the drift toward social breakdown continues in the "advanced" industrial nations, it's not difficult to conceive of voters electing overtly authoritarian, right-wing administrations campaigning on "law-and-order" platforms. In the face of widespread rioting, looting, and mayhem (especially if it spilled over from the ghettos and threatened the suburbs), reactionary hysteria could propel authoritarian types into both the executive and legislative branches of government. The "middle classes" (i.e. professionals, small business people and so on) would then support charismatic martial-style leaders who promised to restore law and order, particularly if they were men with impressive military or police credentials.

Once elected, and with the support of willing legislatures and courts, authoritarian administrations could easily create much more extensive mechanisms of invisible government than already exist, giving the executive branch virtually dictatorial powers. Such administrations could also vastly increase government control of the media, implement martial law, escalate foreign militarism, further expand the funding and scope of the police, national guard units, secret police and foreign intelligence agencies, and authorise more widespread surveillance of citizens as well as the infiltration of dissident political groups. Random searches and seizures, curfews, government control of all organised meetings, harassment or outright banning of groups that disagreed with or attempted to block government policies, and the imprisonment of political dissidents and others judged to be dangerous to "national security" would then become routine.

These developments would not occur all at once, but so gradually, imperceptibly, and logically -- given the need to maintain "law and order" -- that most people would not even be aware that an authoritarian take-over was underway. Indeed, it is already underway in the US (see Bertram Gross, Friendly Fascism, South End Press, 1989).

In the following subsections we will examine some of the symptoms of growing authoritarianism listed above, again referring primarily to the example of the United States. We are including these sections in the FAQ because the disturbing trends canvassed here give the anarchist programme of social reconstruction more urgency than would otherwise be the case. For if radical and dissident groups are muzzled -- as always happens under authoritarian rule -- that programme will be much more difficult to achieve.

D.9.1 Why does political power become concentrated under capitalism?

Under capitalism, political power tends to become concentrated in the executive branch of government, along with a corresponding decline in the effectiveness of parliamentary institutions. As Paul Sweezy points out, parliaments grew out of the struggle of capitalists against the power of centralised monarchies during the early modern period, and hence the function of parliaments has always been to check and control the exercise of executive power. For this reason, "parliaments flourished and reached the peak of their prestige in the period of competitive capitalism when the functions of the state, particularly in the economic sphere, were reduced to a minimum." [Theory of Capitalist Development, p. 310]

As capitalism develops, however, the ruling class must seek to expand its capital through foreign investments, which leads to imperialism, which in turn leads to a tightening of class lines and increasingly severe social conflict, as we have seen earlier (see D.5.2). As this happens, legislatures become battlegrounds of contending parties, divided by divergent class and group interests, which reduces their capacity for positive action. And at the same time, the ruling class increasingly needs a strong centralised state that can protect its interests in foreign countries as well as solve difficult and complex economic problems. "Under the circumstances, parliament is forced to give up one after another of its cherished prerogatives and to see built up under its very eyes the kind of centralised and uncontrolled authority against which, in its youth, it had fought so hard and so well." [Ibid., p. 319]

This process can be seen clearly in the history of the United States. Since World War II, power has become centralised in the hands of the president to such an extent that scholars now refer to an "imperial presidency," following Arthur Schlesinger's 1973 book of that title.

Contemporary US presidents' appropriation of congressional authority, especially in matters relating to national security, has paralleled the rise of the United States as the world's strongest and most imperialistic military power. In the increasingly dangerous and interdependent world of the 20th century, the perceived need for a leader who can act quickly and decisively, without possibly disastrous obstruction by Congress, has provided an impetus for ever greater concentration of power in the White House.

This concentration has taken place in both foreign and domestic policy, but it has been catalysed above all by a series of foreign policy decisions in which modern US presidents have seized the most vital of all government powers, the power to make war. And as they have continued to commit troops to war without congressional authorisation or public debate, their unilateral policy-making has spilled over into domestic affairs as well.

In the atmosphere of omnipresent crisis that developed in the fifties, the United States appointed itself guardian of the "free world" against the Red Menace. This placed unprecedented military resources under the control of the President. At the same time, the Eisenhower Administration established a system of pacts and treaties with nations all over the globe, making it difficult for Congress to limit the President's deployment of troops according to the requirements of treaty obligations and national security, both of which were left to presidential judgement. The CIA, a secretive agency accountable to Congress only after the fact, was made the primary instrument of US intervention in the internal affairs of other nations for national security reasons.

With President Johnson's massive deployment of troops to Vietnam, the scope of presidential war-making power took a giant leap forward. Unlike Truman's earlier decision to commit troops in Korea without prior congressional approval, the UN had not issued any resolutions to legitimate US involvement in Vietnam. In justifying the President's decision, the State Department implied that in the interdependent world of the twentieth century, warfare anywhere on the globe could constitute an attack on the United States which might require immediate response, and hence that the Commander-in-Chief was authorised to take "defensive" war measures without congressional approval or UN authorisation.

Following Vietnam, the presidency was further strengthened by the creation of an all-volunteer military, which is less subject to rebellions in the face of popular opposition to a foreign war than a conscripted force. With their control over the armed forces more secure, presidents since Nixon have been liberated for a much wider range of foreign adventures. The collapse of the Soviet military threat now makes it easier than ever for the President to pursue military options in striving to achieve foreign policy objectives, as the Persian Gulf conflict clearly showed. United States involvement there would have been much more difficult during the Cold War, with the Soviet Union supporting Iraq.

It is sometimes argued that Watergate fatally weakened the power of the US presidency, but this is not actually the case. Michael Lind lists several reasons why [in "The Case for Congressional Power: the Out-of-Control Presidency," The New Republic, Aug. 14, 1995]. First, the President can still wage war at will, without consulting Congress. Second, thanks to precedents set by Bush and Clinton, important economic treaties (like GATT and NAFTA) can be rammed through Congress as "fast-track" legislation, which limits the time allowed for debate and forbids amendments. Third, thanks to Jimmy Carter, who reformed the Senior Executive Service to give the White House more control over career bureaucrats, and Ronald Reagan, who politicised the upper levels of the executive branch to an unprecedented degree, presidents can now pack government with their spoilsmen and reward partisan bureaucrats. Fourth, thanks to George Bush, presidents now have a powerful new technique to enhance presidential prerogatives and erode the intent of Congress even further -- namely, signing laws while announcing that they will not obey them. Fifth, thanks also to Bush, yet another new instrument of arbitrary presidential power has been created: the "tsar," a presidential appointee with vague, sweeping charges that overlap with or supersede the powers of department heads.

As Lind also points out, the White House staff that has ballooned since World War II seems close to becoming an extra-constitutional "fourth branch" of government The creation of presidential "tsars" whose powers overlap or supersede those of department heads is reminiscent of the creation of shadow governments by Hitler and Stalin (see also section D.9.2 -- What is "Invisible government"?).

Besides the reasons noted above, another cause of increasing political centralisation under capitalism is that industrialisation forces masses of people into alienated wage slavery, breaking their bonds to other people, to the land, and to tradition, which in turn encourages strong central governments to assume the role of surrogate parent and to provide direction for their citizens in political, intellectual, moral, and even spiritual matters [see Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1968]. And as Marilyn French emphasises [in Beyond Power], the growing concentration of political power in the capitalist state can also be attributed to the form of the corporation, which is a microcosm of the authoritarian state, since it is based on centralised authority, bureaucratic hierarchy, antidemocratic controls, and lack of individual initiative and autonomy. Thus the millions of people who work for large corporations tend automatically to develop the psychological traits needed to survive and "succeed" under authoritarian rule: notably, obedience, conformity, efficiency, subservience, and fear of responsibility. The political system naturally tends to reflect the psychological conditions created at the workplace, where most people spend about half their time.

Reviewing such trends, Ralph Miliband concludes that "[h]owever strident the rhetoric of democracy and popular sovereignty may be, and despite the 'populist' overtones which politics must now incorporate, the trend is toward the ever-greater appropriation of power at the top." [Divided Societies, Oxford, 1989]

D.9.2. What is "invisible government"?

We've already briefly noted the phenomenon of "invisible government" or "shadow government" (see section D.9), which occurs when an administration is able to bypass or weaken official government agencies or institutions to implement policies that are not officially permitted. In the US, the Reagan Administration's Iran-Contra affair is an example. During that episode the National Security Council, an arm of the executive branch, secretly funded the Contras, a mercenary counterinsurgency force in Central America, in direct violation of the Boland Amendment which Congress had passed for the specific purpose of prohibiting such funding. The fact that investigators could not prove the President's authorisation or even knowledge of the operation is a tribute to the presidential "deniability" its planners took care to build into it.

Other recent cases of invisible government in the United States involve the weakening of official government agencies to the point where they can no longer effectively carry out their mandate. Reagan's tenure in the White House again provides a number of examples. The Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, was for all practical purposes neutralised when employees dedicated to genuine environmental protection were removed and replaced with people loyal to corporate polluters. Evidence suggests that the Department of the Interior under Reagan-appointee James Watt was similarly co-opted. Such detours around the law are deliberate policy tools that allow presidents to exercise much more actual power than they appear to have on paper.

One of the most potent methods of invisible government in the US is the President's authority to determine foreign and domestic policy through National Security Directives that are kept secret from Congress and the American people. Such NSDs cover a virtually unlimited field of actions, shaping policy that may be radically different from what is stated publicly by the White House and involving such matters as interference with First Amendment rights, initiation of activities that could lead to war, escalation of military conflicts, and even the commitment of billions of dollars in loan guarantees -- all without congressional approval or even knowledge.

According to congressional researchers, past administrations have used national security orders to intensify the war in Vietnam, send US commandos to Africa, and bribe foreign governments. The Reagan Administration wrote more than 320 secret directives on everything from the future of Micronesia to ways to keep the government running after a nuclear holocaust. Jeffrey Richelson, a leading scholar on US intelligence, says that the Bush Administration had written more than 100 NSDs as of early 1992 on subjects ranging from the drug wars to nuclear weaponry to support for guerrillas in Afghanistan to politicians in Panama. Although the subjects of such orders have been discovered by diligent reporters and researchers, none of the texts has been declassified or released to Congress. Indeed, the Bush Administration consistently refused to release even unclassified NSDs!

On October 31, 1989, nine months before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, President Bush signed NSD-26, ordering US agencies to expand political and economic ties with Iraq, giving Iraq access to US financial aid involving a billion-dollar loan guarantee as well as military technology and foodstuffs later sold for cash. Members of Congress, concerned that policy decisions involving billion-dollar commitments of funds should be made jointly with the legislature, dispatched investigators in 1991 to obtain a list of the secret directives. The White House refused to co-operate, ordering the directives kept secret "because they deal with national security." Iraq's default on the loans it obtained through NSD-26 means that American taxpayers are footing the billion-dollar bill.

The underlying authoritarianism of politicians is often belied by their words. For instance, even as Reagan claimed to favour diminished centralisation he was calling for a radical increase in his control of the budget and for extended CIA activities inside the country -- with less congressional surveillance -- both of which served to increase centralised power [Tom Farrer, "The Making of Reaganism," New York Review of Books, Jan 21, 1982, cited in Marilyn French, Beyond Power, p. 346]. President Clinton's recent use of an Executive Order to bail out Mexico from its debt crisis after Congress failed to appropriate the money falls right into the authoritarian tradition of running the country by fiat.

Perhaps the most disturbing revelation to emerge from the Iran-Contra affair was the Reagan administration's contingency plan for imposing martial law. Alfonso Chardy, a reporter for the Miami Herald, revealed in July 1987 that Lt. Col. Oliver North, while serving on the National Security Council's staff, had worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on a plan to suspend the Bill of Rights by imposing martial law in the event of "national opposition to a US military invasion abroad." This martial law directive was still in effect in 1988 [ Richard O. Curry, ed., Freedom at Risk: Secrecy, Censorship, and Repression in the 1980s, Temple University Press, 1988].

Former US Attorney General Edwin Meese declared that the single most important factor in implementing martial law would be "advance intelligence gathering to facilitate internment of the leaders of civil disturbances" [Ibid., p. 28}. As discussed in B.16.5, during the 1980s the FBI greatly increased its surveillance of individuals and groups judged to be potentially "subversive," thus providing the Administration with a convenient list of people who would be subject to immediate internment during civil disturbances. The Omnibus Counter-terrorism Bill now being debated in the US Congress would give the President virtually dictatorial powers, by allowing him to imprison and bankrupt dissidents by declaring their organisations "terrorist."

D.9.3 Why are incarceration rates rising?

A large prison population is another characteristic of authoritarian regimes. Hence the burgeoning US incarceration rate during the past decade, coupled with the recent rapid growth of the prison "industry" must be regarded as further evidence of a drift toward authoritarian government, as one would expect given the phenomenon of "Third-Worldisation."

Prison inmates in the US are predominantly poor, and the sentences handed out to people without social prestige or the resources to defend themselves are much harsher than those received by people with higher incomes who are charged with the same crimes. Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics show that the median incomes of male prisoners before sentencing is about one-third that of the general population. Median incomes of inmates are even lower if the relatively few (and more-affluent) white-collar criminals are not included in the calculations.

Since the poor are disproportionately from minorities, the prison population is also disproportionately minority. By 1992, the American authorities were imprisoning black men at a rate five times higher than the old apartheid regime had done at its worst in South Africa, and there were more prisoners of Mexican descent in the US than in all of Mexico [Phil Wilayto, "Prisons and Capitalist Restructuring," Workers' World, January 15, 1995].

Michael Specter reports that more than 90 percent of all the offences committed by prison inmates are crimes against property ["Community Corrections," The Nation, March 13, 1982]. In an era where the richest one percent of the population owns more property than the bottom 90 percent combined, it's hardly a surprise that those at the very bottom should try to recoup illegally some of the maldistributed wealth they are unable to obtain legally.

In the 1980s the United States created mandatory sentences for dozens of drug offences, expanded capital punishment, and greatly increased the powers of police and prosecutors. The result was a doubling of the prison population from 1985 to 1994, according to a report recently issued by the US Department of Justice. Yet the overall crime rate in the U.S. has remained almost constant during the past twenty years, according to the same report. Indeed, the rate dropped 15 percent from 1980 to 1984, yet the number of prisoners increased 43 percent during that same period. The crime rate then increased by 14 percent from 1985 to 1989, while the number of prisoners grew by 52 percent.

Although the growth of the US prison population has been swollen out of proportion to the crime rate by new drug sentencing laws, drug use has not decreased. Repressive measures are clearly not working, as anyone can see, yet they're still favoured over social programmes, which continue to be scaled back. For example, a recently passed crime law in the US commits billions of dollars for more police and prisons, while at the same time the new Republican Congress eliminates family planning clinics, school lunch programmes, summer youth jobs programmes, etc. Prison construction has become a high-growth industry, one of the few "bright" spots in the American economy, attracting much investment by Wall Street vultures.

D.9.4 Why is government secrecy and surveillance of citizens on the increase?

Authoritarian governments are characterised by fully developed secret police forces, extensive government surveillance of civilians, a high level of official secrecy and censorship, and an elaborate system of state coercion to intimidate and silence dissenters. All of these phenomena have existed in the US for at least eighty years, but since World War II they have taken more extreme forms, especially during the 1980s. In this section we will examine the operations of the secret police.

The creation of an elaborate US "national security" apparatus has come about gradually since 1945 through congressional enactments, numerous executive orders and national security directives, and a series of Supreme Court decisions that have eroded First Amendment rights. The policies of the Reagan administration, however, reflected radical departures from the past, as revealed not only by their comprehensive scope but by their institutionalisation of secrecy, censorship, and repression in ways that will be difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate. As Richard Curry points out, the Reagan administration's success stems "from major structural and technological changes that have occurred in American society during the twentieth century -- especially the emergence of the modern bureaucratic State and the invention of sophisticated electronic devices that make surveillance possible in new and insidious ways." [Curry, Op. Cit., p. 4]

The FBI has used "countersubversive" surveillance techniques and kept lists of people and groups judged to be potential national security threats since the days of the Red Scare in the 1920s. Such activities were expanded in the late 1930s when Franklin Roosevelt instructed the FBI to gather information about Fascist and Communist activities in the US and to conduct investigations into possible espionage and sabotage. FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover interpreted these directives as authorising open-ended inquiries into a very broad category of potential "subversives"; and by repeatedly misinforming a succession of careless or indifferent presidents and attorneys general about the precise scope of Roosevelt's directives, Hoover managed for more than 30 years to elicit tacit executive approval for continuous FBI investigations into an ever-expanding class of political dissidents [Geoffrey R. Stone, "The Reagan Administration, the First Amendment, and FBI Domestic Security Investigations," in Curry, Ibid.].

The advent of the Cold War, ongoing conflicts with the Soviet Union, and fears of the "international Communist conspiracy" provided justification not only for covert CIA operations and American military intervention in countries all over the globe, but also contributed to the FBI's rationale for expanding its domestic surveillance activities.

Thus in 1957, without authorisation from Congress or any president, Hoover launched a highly secret operation called COINTELPRO:

"From 1957 to 1974, the bureau opened investigative files on more than half a million 'subversive' Americans. In the course of these investigations, the bureau, in the name of 'national security,' engaged in widespread wire-tapping, bugging, mail-openings, and break-ins. Even more insidious was the bureau's extensive use of informers and undercover operative to infiltrate and report on the activities and membership of 'subversive' political associations ranging from the Socialist Workers Party to the NAACP to the Medical Committee for Human Rights to a Milwaukee Boy Scout troop." [Stone, Ibid., p. 274].

But COINTELPRO involved much more than just investigation and surveillance. It was used to discredit, weaken, and ultimately destroy the New Left and Black radical movements of the sixties and early seventies, i.e. to silence the major sources of political dissent and opposition.

The FBI fomented violence through the use of agents provocateurs and destroyed the credibility of movement leaders by framing them, bringing false charges against them, distributing offensive materials published in their name, spreading false rumours, sabotaging equipment, stealing money, and other dirty tricks. By such means the Bureau exacerbated internal frictions within movements, turning members against each other as well as other groups.

Government documents show the FBI and police involved in creating acrimonious disputes which ultimately led to the break-up of such groups as Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panther Party, and the Liberation News Service. The Bureau also played a part in the failure of such groups to form alliances across racial, class, and regional lines. The FBI is implicated in the assassination of Malcolm X, who was killed in a "factional dispute" that the Bureau bragged of having "developed" in the Nation of Islam, and of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was the target of an elaborate FBI plot to drive him to suicide before he was conveniently killed by a sniper. Other radicals were portrayed as criminals, adulterers, or government agents, while still others were murdered in phoney "shoot-outs" where the only shooting was done by the police.

These activities finally came to public attention because of the Watergate investigations, congressional hearings, and information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In response to the revelations of FBI abuse, Attorney General Edward Levi in 1976 set forth a set of public guidelines governing the initiation and scope of the bureau's domestic security investigations, severely restricting its ability to investigate political dissidents.

The Levi guidelines, however, proved to be only a temporary reversal of the trend. Although throughout his presidency Ronald Reagan professed to be against the increase of state power in regard to domestic policy, he in fact expanded the power of the national bureaucracy for "national security" purposes in systematic and unprecedented ways. One of the most significant of these was his immediate elimination of the safeguards against FBI abuse that the Levi guidelines had been designed to prevent. This was accomplished through two interrelated executive branch initiatives: Executive Order 12333, issued in 1981, and Attorney General William French Smith's guidelines, which replaced Levi's in 1983.

The Smith guidelines permitted the FBI to launch domestic security investigations if the facts "reasonably indicated" that groups or individuals were involved in criminal activity. More importantly, however, the new guidelines also authorised the FBI to "anticipate or prevent crime." As a result, the FBI could now investigate groups or individuals whose statements "advocated" criminal activity or indicated an apparent intent to engage in crime, particularly crimes of violence.

As Curry notes, the language of the Smith guidelines provided FBI officials with sufficient interpretative latitude to investigate virtually any group or individual it chose to target, including political activists who opposed the administration's foreign policy. Not surprisingly, under the new guidelines the Bureau immediately began investigating a wide variety of political dissidents, quickly making up for the time it had lost since 1976. Congressional sources show that in 1985 alone the FBI conducted 96 investigations of groups and individuals opposed to the Reagan Administration's Central American policies, including religious organisations who expressed solidarity with Central American refugees.

The Smith guidelines only allowed the Bureau to investigate dissidents. Now, however, there is a far greater threat to the US Bill of Rights waiting in the wings: the so-called Omnibus Counter-Terrorism Bill. If passed, this bill would allow the President, on his own initiative and by his own definition, to declare any person or organisation "terrorist."

Section 301(c)6 states that these presidential rulings will be considered as conclusive and cannot be appealed in court. The Attorney General would also be handed new enforcement powers, e.g. suspects would be considered guilty unless proven innocent, and the source or nature of the evidence brought against suspects would not have to be revealed if the Justice Department claimed a "national security" interest in suppressing such facts, as of course it would. Suspects could also be held without bail and deported for any reason if they were visiting aliens. Resident aliens would be entitled to a hearing, but could nevertheless be deported even if no crime were proven! US citizens could be put in jail for up to ten years and pay a $250,000 fine if declared guilty.

An equally scary provision of the Counter-Terrorism Bill is Section 603, which subsumes all "terrorist" crimes under the RICO (Racketeer-Influenced Criminal Organisation) civil asset forfeiture statutes. Thus anyone merely accused of "interfering" or "impeding" or "threatening" a current or former federal employee could have all their property seized under "conspiracy to commit terrorism" charges. Some in Congress now want to designate all local gun-related charges as federal terrorist crimes. Obviously the Counter-Terrorism Bill would simply add to the abuses that are already widespread in drug cases under the seizure and forfeiture laws. This is hardly surprising, since Federal and state agencies and local police are encouraged to make seizures and get to keep the property for their own use, and since anonymous informants who make charges leading to seizures are entitled to part of the property seized.

If this bill passes, it is certain to be used against the Left, as COINTELPRO was in the past. For it will greatly increase the size and funding of the FBI and give it the power to engage in "anti-terrorist" activities all over the country, without judicial oversight. The mind reels at the ability this bill would give the government to suppress dissidents or critics of capitalism, who have historically been the favourite targets of FBI abuses. For example, if an agent provocateur were to bring an illegal stick of dynamite to a peaceful meeting of philosophical anarchists, he could later report everyone at the meeting to the government on charges of conspiracy to commit a terrorist act. The agent could even blow something up with the dynamite and claim that other members knew of the plan. Everyone in the group could then have all their property seized and be jailed for up to ten years!

Even if the Counter-Terrorism Bill doesn't pass in its present form, the fact that a draconian measure like this is even being considered says volumes about the direction in which the US -- and by implication the other "advanced" capitalist states -- are headed.

D.9.5 But doesn't authoritarian government always involve censorship?

Yes. And central governments have been quietly increasing their power over the media for the past several decades. Monopolistic control of mass communications may not be readily evident in nominally democratic societies, where there seem to be many different sources of information. Yet on closer inspection it turns out that virtually all the major media -- those that reach the vast majority of people -- promulgate essentially the same neocapitalist world view. This is because the so-called "free" press is owned by a handful of capitalistic media conglomerates. Such uniformity insures that any facts, concepts, or opinions that clash with or tend to discredit the fundamental principles of that world view are unlikely to reach a wide audience (see section D.3).

There are numerous ties between government, news magazines, and newspapers. Corporate interests dominate television and radio; and for reasons described earlier, the interests of major corporations largely coincide with those of the government. The tendency in recent years has been toward the absorption of small independent print media, especially newspapers, by conglomerates that derive their major profits from such industries as steel, oil, and telephone equipment. As Marilyn French notes, the effect of these conglomerates' control "is to warn communications media away from anything that might be disturbing, and toward a bland, best-of-all-possible-worlds point of view. Although people have a wide range of reading and viewing material to choose from, the majority of it offers the same kinds of distraction -- fads and fashions, surface glitter -- or tranquillisation: all problems are solvable, no serious injustice or evil is permitted to continue" [French, Op. Cit., p. 350]. In other words, people are granted ever-increasing access to an ever-decreasing range of "acceptable" ideas.

These trends represent an unofficial and unsystematic form of censorship. In the United States, however, the federal government has been extending official and systematic forms of censorship as well. Again, the Reagan Administration proceeded furthest in this regard. In 1983 alone, more than 28,000 speeches, articles, and books written by government employees were submitted to government censors for clearance. The Reagan government even set a precedent for restricting information that is not classified. This it accomplished by passing laws requiring all government employees with security clearances to sign Standard Form 189, which allows them to be prosecuted for divulging not only classified information but that which is "nonclassified but classifiable." The latter is a deliberately vague, Catch-22 category that has sufficient interpretative latitude to allow for the harassment of most would-be whistle-blowers [Curry, Op. Cit.].

The United States Information Agency (USIA), which sends scholars overseas as part of its AMPARTS programme of educational and cultural exchanges, has attempted to screen the political opinions of scholars it selects for foreign speaking engagements. In 1983 the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Operations criticised USIA officials for "violating the letter and spirit of its charter" in choosing its AMPARTS speakers on the basis of "partisan political ideology."

In early 1984 the USIA's policies became a national scandal when the Washington Post revealed that since late 1981 the USIA had been compiling a blacklist containing not only the names of prominent academics but of national figures, including Coretta Scott King, Congressman Jack Brooks, and former Senator Gary Hart. Under the Immigration, Naturalisation, and Nationality Act (known as "the McCarran Act") foreign nationals have been denied entry into the United States because of their political and ideological beliefs. Among the most notable among the thousands who have been so denied are Nobel Prize-winning authors Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Czeslaw Milosz, as well as author Carlos Fuentes, playwright Dario Fo, actress Franca Rame, novelist Doris Lessing, NATO Deputy Supreme Commander Nino Pasti, renowned Canadian writer Farley Mowat, American-born feminist writer Margaret Randall, and Hortensia Allende, widow of the former Socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende.

In perhaps the most disturbing censorship development in recent years, the Reagan Administration used the powers of the Trading with the Enemy Act to place an embargo on magazines and newspapers from Cuba, North Vietnam, and Albania (but not China or the ex-Soviet Union), and confiscated certain Iranian books purchased by television journalists abroad. These materials were not embargoed because they contained American secrets, but simply because it was thought they might contain information the Administration did not want Americans to know [French, Op. Cit., p. 433].

Official censorship was also highly evident during the recent Persian Gulf massacre. In this one-sided conflict, the government not only severely curtailed the press's access to information about the war, restricting reporters to escorted "press pools," but to a large extent turned the major news media into compliant instruments of Administration propaganda. This was accomplished by creating competition between the TV networks and news services for the limited number of slots in the pools, thus making news departments dependent on the government's good will and turning news anchors into cheerleaders for the US-led slaughter.

Reporting on the Gulf War was also directly censored by the military, by news and photo agencies, or by both. For instance, when award-winning journalist Jon Alpert, a longtime NBC stringer, "came back from Iraq with spectacular videotape of Basra [Iraq's second largest city, population 800,000] and other areas of Iraq devastated by US bombing, NBC president Michael Gartner not only ordered that the footage not be aired but forbade Alpert from working for the network in the future" [Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Extra, Special Issue on the Gulf War, 1991, p. 15].

As John R. Macarthur has documented, congressional approval for the war might not have been forthcoming without a huge preliminary propaganda and disinformation campaign designed to demonise Saddam Hussein and his troops. The centrepiece of this campaign -- the now infamous story of Iraqi soldiers allegedly ripping premature Kuwaiti babies from their incubators and leaving them to die on the cold hospital floor -- was a total fabrication masterminded by an American public relations firm funded by the Kuwaiti government-in-exile and eagerly disseminated by the Administration with the help of a credulous and uncritical news establishment [John R. Macarthur, Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War, Hill & Wang, 1992; also, John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, Toxic Sludge is Good For You! Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry, Common Courage Press, 1995].

These trends toward a system of official and unofficial censorship do not bode well for future freedom of speech and of the press. For they establish precedents for muzzling, intimidating, and co-opting the primary sources of public information -- precedents that can be invoked whenever an administration finds it convenient. This is just one more piece of evidence that late capitalism is leading inexorably toward authoritarian government.

D.9.6 What does the Right want?

In his book Post-Conservative America Kevin Phillips, one of the most knowledgeable and serious conservative ideologues, discusses the possibility of fundamental alterations that he regards as desirable in the US government. His proposals leave no doubt about the direction in which the Right wishes to proceed. "Governmental power is too diffused to make difficult and necessary economic and technical decisions," Phillips maintains. "[A]ccordingly, the nature of that power must be re-thought. Power at the federal level must be augmented, and lodged for the most part in the executive branch" [p. 218].

In the model state Phillips describes, Congress would be reduced to a mere tool of a presidency grown even more "imperial" than it already is, with congressional leaders serving in the Cabinet and the two-party system merged into a single-party coalition. Before we dismiss this idea as impossible to implement, let's remember that the distinction between the two major parties has already been virtually obliterated, as each is controlled by the corporate elite, albeit by different factions within it.

Despite many tactical disagreements, virtually all members of this elite share a basic set of principles, attitudes, ideals, and values. Whether Democrat or Republican, most of them have graduated from the same Ivy League schools, belong to the same exclusive social clubs, serve on the same interlocking boards of directors of the same major corporations, and send their children to the same private boarding schools [See G. William Domhoff, Who Rules America Now? 1983; C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite, 1956]. Perhaps most importantly, they share the same psychology, which means that they have the same priorities and interests: namely, those of corporate America.

Hence there's actually only one party already -- the Business Party -- which wears two different masks to hide its real face from the public. Similar remarks apply to the liberal democratic regimes in the rest of the advanced capitalist states. The absence of a true opposition party, which itself is a main characteristic of authoritarian regimes, is thus an accomplished fact already, and has been so for many years.

Besides the merging of the major political parties, other forces are leading inexorably toward the scenario described by Phillips. For instance, the power of the executive branch continues to grow because the authority of Congress has been progressively weakened by scandals, partisan bickering, gridlock, and ongoing revelations of legislative corruption. Indeed, bribe-taking, influence-peddling, check-bouncing, conflicts of interest, shady deals, sex scandals, and general incompetence now seem almost routine on Capitol Hill. Unless something is done to restore congressional respectability, the climate will remain conducive to a further consolidation of power in the presidency.

Phillips assures us that all the changes he envisions can be accomplished without altering the Constitution. Such marvels are indeed possible. The Emperor Augustus centralised all real power in his own hands without disbanding the Roman Senate or the Roman Republic; Hitler implemented his Nazi programmes while leaving the Weimar constitution intact; Stalin ruled under the revolutionary constitution which was theoretically democratic.

The facts cited here as evidence for the gradual authoritarianisation of the United States have been canvassed before by others, sometimes accompanied by warnings of impending dictatorship. So far such warnings have proven to be premature. What is especially alarming today, however, is that the many signs of growing authoritarianism examined above are now coinciding with the symptoms of a social breakdown -- a "coincidence" which in the past has heralded the approach of tyranny.

Fully authoritarian regimes in the US and other First World nations would represent far more than a mere threat to citizens' civil liberties and their hopes for a better society. For authoritarian regimes tend to be associated with reckless military adventurism led by autocratic heads of state. Thus, in a nuclear world in which Europe and Japan followed the US lead toward authoritarian government, the likelihood of nuclear aggression by irresponsible politicians would continue to grow. In that case, the former anxieties of the Cold War would seem mild by comparison. Hence the urgency of the anarchist programme of anti-authoritarianism, political decentralisation, and grassroots democracy -- the only real antidotes to the disturbing trends described above.

As an aside we should note that many naysayers and ruling class apologists often deny the growing authoritarianism as "paranoia" or "conspiracy theorising." The common retort is "but if things are as bad as you say, how come the government lets you write this seditious FAQ?"

The reason we can write this work unmolested is testimony to the lack of power possessed by the public at large, in the existing political culture--that is, countercultural movements needn't be a concern to the government until they become broader-based and capable of challenging the existing economic order--only then is it "necessary" for the repressive, authoritarian forces to work on undermining the movement.

So long as there is no effective organising and no threat to the interests of the ruling elite, people are permitted to say whatever they want. This creates the illusion that the society is open to all ideas, when, in fact, it isn't. But, as the decimation of the Wobblies and anarchist movement after the First World War first illustrated, the government will seek to eradicate any movement that poses a significant threat.

The proper application of spin to dissident ideology can make it seem that any alternatives to the present system "just wouldn't work" or "are utopian", even when such alternatives are in the self-interest of the population at large. This ideological pruning creates the misperception in people's minds that radical theories haven't been successfully implemented because they are inherently flawed--and naturally, the current authoritarian ideology is portrayed as the only "sane" course of action for people to follow.

For example, most Americans reject socialism outright, without any understanding or even willingness to understand what socialism is really about. This isn't because (libertarian) socialism is wrong; it's a direct result of capitalist propagandising of the past 70 years (and its assertion that "socialism" equals Stalinism).

Extending this attitude to the people themselves, authoritarians (with generous help from the corporate press) paint dissidents as "crackpots" and "extremists," while representing themselves as reasonable "moderates", regardless of the relative positions they are advocating. In this way, a community opposing a toxic waste incinerator in their area can be lambasted in the press as the bad guys, when what is really happening is a local community is practising democracy, daring to challenge the corporate/government authoritarians!

In the Third World, dissenters are typically violently murdered and tossed into unmarked mass graves; here, in the First World, more subtle subversion must take place. The "invisible hand" of advanced capitalist authoritarian societies is no less effective; the end result is the same, if the methodology differs--the elimination of alternatives to the present socio-economic order.