Happy as a Hangman
Monday 06 December 2010
U.S. Army Soldiers attached to the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment detain Iraqi suspects during the search for three missing Soldiers in Yusifiyah, Iraq, May 14, 2007. (Photo
Innocence, as defined by law, makes us complicit with the crimes of the state. To do nothing, to be judged by the state as an innocent, is to be guilty. It is to sanction, through passivity and obedience, the array of crimes carried out by the state.
To be innocent in
The steady impoverishment and misery inflicted by the corporate state on the working class and increasingly the middle class has a terrible logic. It consolidates corporate centers of power. It weakens us morally and politically. The fraud and violence committed by the corporate state become secondary as we scramble to feed our families, find a job and pay our bills and mortgages. Those who cling to insecure, poorly paid jobs and who struggle with crippling credit card debt, those who are mired in long-term unemployment and who know that huge medical bills would bankrupt them, those who owe more on their houses than they are worth and who fear the future, become frightened and timid. They seek only to survive. They accept the pathetic scraps tossed to them by the corporate elite. The internal and external corporate abuse accelerates as we become every day more pliant.
Our corrupt legal system, perverting the concept that “all men are created equal,” has radically redefined civic society. Citizens, regardless of their status or misfortune, are now treated with the same studied indifference by the state. They have been transformed from citizens to commodities whose worth is determined solely by the market and whose value is measured by their social and economic functions. The rich, therefore, are rewarded by the state with tax cuts because they are rich. It is their function to monopolize wealth and invest. The poor are supposed to be poor. The poor should not be a drain on the resources of the state or the oligarchic elite. Equality, in this new legal paradigm, means we are all treated alike, no matter what our circumstances. This new interpretation of equality, under which the poor are abandoned and the powerful are unchecked, has demolished the system of regulations, legal restraints and services that once protected the underclass from wealthy and corporate predators.
The creation of a permanent, insecure and frightened underclass is the most effective weapon to thwart rebellion and resistance as our economy worsens. Huge pools of unemployed and underemployed blunt labor organizing, since any job, no matter how menial, is zealously coveted. As state and federal social welfare programs, especially in education, are gutted, we create a wider and wider gulf between the resources available to the tiny elite and the deprivation and suffering visited on our permanent underclass. Access to education, for example, is now largely defined by class. The middle class, taking on huge debt, desperately flees to private institutions to make sure their children have a chance to enter the managerial ranks of the corporate elite. And this is the idea. Public education, which, when it functions, gives opportunities to all citizens, hinders a system of corporate neofeudalism. Corporations are advancing, with Barack Obama’s assistance, charter schools and educational services that are stripped down and designed to train classes for their appropriate vocations, which, if you’re poor means a future in the service sector. The eradication of teachers’ unions, under way in states such as
The beating down of workers, exacerbated by the prospect that unemployment benefits will not be renewed for millions of Americans and that public sector unions will soon be broken, has transformed those in the working class from full members of society, able to participate in its debates, the economy and governance, into terrified people in fragmented pools preoccupied with the struggle of private existence. Those who are economically broken usually cease to be concerned with civic virtues. They will, history has demonstrated, serve any system, no matter how evil, and do anything for a salary, job security and the protection of their families.
There will be sectors of the society that, as the situation worsens, attempt to rebel. But the state can rely on a huge number of people who, for work and meager benefits, will transform themselves into willing executioners. The reconfiguration of American society into a corporate oligarchy is conditioning tens of millions not only to passively accept state and corporate crimes, but to actively participate in the mechanisms that ensure their own enslavement.
“Each time society, through unemployment, frustrates the small man in his normal functioning and normal self-respect,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1945 essay “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility,” “it trains him for that last stage in which he will willingly undertake any function, even that of hangman.”
Organs of state repression do not rely so much on fanatics and sadists as ordinary citizens who are desperate, who need a job, who are willing to obey. Arendt relates a story of a Jew who is released from
Arendt also quotes an interview with a camp official at Majdanek. The camp official concedes that he has assisted in the gassing and burying of people alive. But when he is asked, “Do you know the Russians will hang you?” he bursts into tears. “Why should they? What have I done?” he says.
I can imagine, should the rule of law ever one day be applied to the insurance companies responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans denied medical care, that there will be the same confused response from insurance executives. What is frightening in collapsing societies is not only the killers, sadists, murderers and psychopaths who rise up out of the moral swamp to take power, but the huge numbers of ordinary people who become complicit in state crimes. I saw this during the war in
Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his book “The Gulag Archipelago” writes about a close friend who served with him in World War II. Solzhenitsyn’s defiance of the Communist regime after the war saw him sent to the Soviet gulags. His friend, loyal to the state, was sent there as an interrogator. Solzhenitsyn was forced to articulate a painful truth. The mass of those who serve systems of terrible oppression and state crime are not evil. They are weak.
“If only there were vile people ... committing evil deeds, and if it were only necessary to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them,” Solzhenitsyn wrote. “But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
The expansions of public and private organs of state security, from Homeland Security to the mercenary forces we are building in
The bureaucrats who maintain these repressive state organs, who prosecute the illegal wars in
Those who serve as functionaries within corporations such as Goldman Sachs or ExxonMobil and carry out crimes ask of their masters that they be exempted from personal responsibility for the acts they commit. They serve corporate structures that kill, but, as Arendt notes, the corporate employee “does not regard himself as a murderer because he has not done it out of inclination but in his professional capacity.” At home the corporate man or woman is meek. He or she has no proclivity to violence, although the corporate systems they serve by day pollute, impoverish, maim and kill.
Those who do not carry out acts of rebellion, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, are guilty of solidifying and perpetuating these crimes. Those who do not act delude themselves into believing they are innocent. They are not.
Chris Hedges is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute and a weekly columnist for Truthdig. His newest book is “Death of the Liberal Class.” On Dec. 16 he, Daniel Ellsberg, Medea Benjamin, Ray McGovern, Dr. Margaret Flowers and several others will hold a rally across from the White House to protest the wars in
All republished content that appears on Truthout has been obtained by permission or license.
Donations can be sent to the
"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs