<title>D.9 What is the relationship between wealth polarisation and authoritarian government?
<H1>D.9 What is the relationship between wealth polarisation and authoritarian government?</H1>
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 <i>"Third-Worldisation."</i> 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 [<b>A Dream
Deferred</b>, 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 <a href="secD9.html#secd92">D.9.2</a>).
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, <b>Beyond
Power</b>, 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
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
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, <b>Friendly Fascism</b>, 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.
<a name="secd91"><h2>D.9.1 Why does political power become concentrated under capitalism?</h2>
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, <i>"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."</i> [<b>Theory of Capitalist Development</b>, 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. <i>"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."</i> [<b>Ibid.</b>, 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
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.
<p>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 <i>"The Case for Congressional Power: the
Out-of-Control Presidency,"</i> <b>The New Republic</b>, 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
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 -- <a href="secD9.html#secd92">What is "Invisible government"?</a>).
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, <b>The Origins of Totalitarianism</b>,
1968]. And as Marilyn French emphasises [in <b>Beyond Power</b>], 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 <i>"[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."</i> [<b>Divided
Societies</b>, Oxford, 1989]
<a name="secd92"><h2>D.9.2. What is "invisible government"?</h2>
We've already briefly noted the phenomenon of "invisible government" or
"shadow government" (see section <a href="secD9.html">D.9</a>), 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
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 <b>un</b>classified 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 <i>"because they deal with
national security."</i> Iraq's default on the loans it obtained through
NSD-26 means that American taxpayers are footing the billion-dollar
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, <i>"The Making of Reaganism,"</i> New York Review of Books,
Jan 21, 1982, cited in Marilyn French, <b>Beyond Power</b>, 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 <b>Miami Herald</b>, 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 <i>"national opposition to a US military invasion abroad."</i>
This martial law directive was still in effect in 1988 [ Richard O. Curry,
ed., <b>Freedom at Risk: Secrecy, Censorship, and Repression in the
1980s</b>, Temple University Press, 1988].
Former US Attorney General Edwin Meese declared that the single most
important factor in implementing martial law would be <i>"advance
intelligence gathering to facilitate internment of the leaders of civil
disturbances"</i> [<b>Ibid.</b>, 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."
<a name="secd93"><h2>D.9.3 Why are incarceration rates rising?</h2>
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
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, <i>"Prisons and Capitalist Restructuring,"</i> <b>Workers' World</b>,
January 15, 1995].
Michael Specter reports that more than 90 percent of all the offences committed
by prison inmates are crimes against property [<i>"Community Corrections,"</i> <b>The
Nation</b>, 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
<a name="secd94"><h2>D.9.4 Why is government secrecy and surveillance of citizens on the increase?</h2>
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 <i>"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."</i>
[Curry, <b>Op. Cit.</b>, 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, <i>"The Reagan Administration, the
First Amendment, and FBI Domestic Security Investigations,"</i> in Curry,
The advent of the Cold War, ongoing conflicts with the Soviet Union, and
fears of the <i>"international Communist conspiracy"</i> 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:
<i>"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."</i> [Stone, <b>Ibid.</b>, 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
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 <i>"reasonably indicated"</i> that groups or
individuals were involved in criminal activity. More importantly,
however, the new guidelines also authorised the FBI to <i>"anticipate or
prevent crime."</i> As a result, the FBI could now investigate groups or
individuals whose statements <i>"advocated"</i> criminal activity or indicated an
<b>apparent intent</b> 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.
<a name="secd95"><h2>D.9.5 But doesn't authoritarian government always involve censorship?</h2>
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 <a href="secD3.html">D.3</a>).
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 <i>"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"</i> [French,
<b>Op. Cit.</b>, 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, <b>Op. Cit.</b>].
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
<i>"violating the letter and spirit of its charter"</i> in choosing its AMPARTS
speakers on the basis of <i>"partisan political ideology."</i>
In early 1984 the USIA's policies became a national scandal when the
<b>Washington Post</b> 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
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, <b>Op. Cit.</b>, 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, <i>"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"</i> [Fairness and Accuracy
in Reporting, <b>Extra, Special Issue on the Gulf War</b>, 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, <b>Second Front: Censorship and
Propaganda in the Gulf War</b>, Hill & Wang, 1992; also, John Stauber and
Sheldon Rampton, <b>Toxic Sludge is Good For You! Lies, Damn Lies
and the Public Relations Industry</b>, 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
<a name="secd96"><h2>D.9.6 What does the Right want?</h2>
In his book <b>Post-Conservative America</b> 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. <i>"Governmental power is too diffused to make
difficult and necessary economic and technical decisions,"</i> Phillips
maintains. <i>"[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"</i> [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, <b>The Power Elite</b>,
1956]. Perhaps most importantly, they share the same psychology, which
means that they have the same priorities and interests: namely, those of
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
<b>any</b> 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
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