Presidential and police actions tear off the mask of the state
A rambling reflection.
When academics and theorists speak of “the state,” the rest of us conjure a variety of images and impressions . . . civics class diagrams of the three branches of government, a vast web of bureaucracy, government offices, elected officials we recognize, and so on. Some of us think of the state as that distinct entity which holds a legal monopoly on deadly force. Few of us think about how fragile that monopoly can be, because so long as a majority concedes the state’s legal monopoly on deadly force, few people will challenge it. So police (we’ll set aside the military for a hot second, because their role is to project deadly force abroad) can generally maintain their control through day-to-day policing — in white areas, mostly traffic regulation enforcement and responding to petty crime and loud domestic and barroom disputes — by reacting to public challenges of the police in singular hotspots, where they can isolate the “problem,” temporarily assign a concentration of officers, and put down the resistance. Once in a while, these public grievances reach a threshold whereupon so many people join the street resistance that the police are dramatically outnumbered in so many places at once that the re-establishment of police control and authority is pursued by increasing the level of force to injurious and-or deadly.
There is a leftist truism regarding the state, which is true but not absolutely true, that the state is the governing committee of the ruling class . . . in our case, the big-business class. Non-absolute because there are shifting rifts between fractions of the ruling class. They are, after all, engaged in ruthless competition with each other in the marketplace (though that is less true based on how comprehensively advanced monopolization is). But more to the point, like the much smaller and ill-organized left, they fall out with one another over the question of strategy and tactics. Strategy and tactics to accomplish what? To discipline and control the general population for the purpose of gaining and holding power through accumulation. That means, except in extraordinary circumstances, maintaining stability by pacifying the majority of the population.
This is a tricky business. Many are celebrating military figures right now who are standing against Trump, including Marine General James Mattis, also known as “the butcher of Fallujah.” Security-state Democrats (Democratic neocons) and George Will Republicans (all ten of them) looove them some Mattis. And it may well be that Mattis is so nationalistic that his willingness to kill Arabs, armed and unarmed alike, men, women, and children, only extends across the border. He did take that oath to defend the Constitution (inside the US), after all. More likely, however, is that Mattis and other Generals, as well as various secretaries and undersecretaries and deputy assistant to the assistant poobahs in the War Department, understand that they’re sitting on a powder keg. We just saw the biggest outpouring of public rage since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King; and the armed forces has an over-representation of blacks and Hispano-Latin@s. Black troops are three out of every ten, twice the percentage of black folk in the US. Putting black troops in the street to confront protesters against police abuses — as Bunker Boy Trumpenfuehrer threatens — is an invitation to dissent in the ranks, as well as open conflict between troops. Trump is inviting the destabilization outside the military into the military; and the Generals know this is — from a purely tactical perspective — insane.
Security-state Democrats and ideologically proximate anti-Trump Republicans are using the outrage against Trump right now to re-establish themselves as the “center” in American politics. It’s important for popular forces to understand their motivation for three reasons: first, their opposition to Trump is widening the rift between fractions of the ruling class and the state apparatus; second, this works to the advantage of popular forces who the anti-Trump fraction wants to opportunistically court; third, they don’t really mean it, so we need to be alert for when they no longer feel they need us. We’ll handle them, too, when the time comes, but right now it seems best we give them their head (in the equestrian sense).
When Mattis said that the US is not a “battlespace,” he was inadvertently exposing a phase-shift in US war doctrine since Bush-Rumsfeld, one expanded and strengthened under Obama. Doctrine prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks corresponded to Geneva, wherein there were different rules on and off the battlefield. Bush-Rumsfeld redefined the whole world as a battlefield, thereby granting US forces battlefield impunity anywhere in the world. This is Global War on Terror (GWOT) stuff, which allowed Obama to commit bombings and assassinations (even of US citizens) in seven countries. The only exception to this global “battlespace” was inside the US. To use troops against Americans on American soil requires an emergency waiver of Posse Comitatus — the rule that US troops are not to be used to deal with civil disturbances inside the US. Trump is an entitled (and likely drug-addled) moron who can’t grasp this — not even the implications that might hurt him. He believes he is a king, and that the armed forces are his own personal toy. He does, however, have the legal power to invoke the Insurrection Act, which is why military leaders would like to dart him. It has the potential to tear the military apart.
There are plenty of active duty troops who would gladly support Trump and fire into crowds. The military attracts some sociopathic bastards who join up to kill people without risking prison. But most of the troops join out of naive patriotism or economic need. And in this case, as Trump tries to stimulate a race war with his dog whistling to right-wing loons, at least a third of the troops, based on their own backgrounds and experiences, harbor ill feelings toward the police. When Trump sends black troops to attack a black-led uprising based on real, nearly universal black experience, the first fights to break out will be in the ranks. Mattis et al have studied the Vietnam Era, and they know racial strife in the ranks goes downhill fast, and every leader in the military is then faced with an impossible situation.
Now, as I’ve pointed out here before, American cops are actually the military force designated for internal population control, and that control is exercised selectively against “internal enemies,” using military counter-insurgency doctrine. The chief “internal enemy” that police focus on in the US is African America. While small town cops and cops who patrol suburbia are intervening in marital spats and fender benders, big city police behave like an occupying military force in black (and brown) neighborhoods.
Counter-insurgency doctrine employs a carrot-and-stick approach combined with “psychological operations” (psyops).
Before taking up the carrots and sticks, let’s clarify what psyops are. They are not svengali-like attempts to mesmerize populations; they are fairly ham-handed attempts to deceive populations about the intent of the occupying force. When I was a Special Forces medic for a time, I vaccinated people in Latin America and worked as a mobile free clinic for various maladies. I was friendly and polite, and even knocked off with some of the locals for a few beers afterwards. This was called HCA, or humanitarian-civil action, which it was in the most immediate sense. It was satisfying to me as a medic and to the patients. But the purpose of sending me and other medics out was not to improve the overall health of a village; it was to deceive the population into believing the US military and our local military proxies were a beneficial force. “Winning hearts and minds,” and all that.
That was a psyop, as well as a carrot. Other carrots were hiring locals as spies to give them a stake in whatever bullshit we were supporting — mostly teaching host-nation militaries how to more ruthlessly beat down their own fellow citizens. The carrots are offered to what I call colonial surrogates, enough of the “civil society” locals to deceive and pacify the rest. Black communities here in the US can probably identify. Palestinians can, too.
Cops who do kneeling photo-ops right now, ten minutes after they were beating the shit out of an old man or some teenage girl or firing rubber bullets at journalists, are engaged in a psyop. A deceptive impression.
Then there’s that stick. When the populace reaches a breaking point and begins to challenge the occupier, they have to be taught a lesson. That’s what big city cops are doing all over the US right now, when they assault, maim, arrest, and kill as a form of deterrence. They are acting out like massive gangs to brutalize people into submission. We are witnessing a nationwide police rampage.
Which brings us to another point — fissures within the state. Not just the minor rebellion of a few Generals against the gasbag in the White House, but around the question of civilian control over military and paramilitary (police) forces. One of the first things I taught to West Point plebes was the “civil-military relationship.” We put tremendous emphasis on making sure cadets understood that, by law, armed forces must be under civilian control. That’s why Generals can’t be Secretaries of Defense unless they retire from active duty first. On paper this looks good, but the law generates its own counter-measures, its own loopholes. In reality, an organized armed force, as a critical adjunct to official power, has more power than can be legally acknowledged.
An apocryphal story: an American reporter in Laos once tried to buy cigarettes with local script, whereupon the merchant said he only accepted dollars. When a Laotian soldier bought cigarettes a moment later, paying in local script, the American complained, “You sold him cigarettes, why not me?” The merchant replied, “He has an AK-47.”
We all just witnessed how New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio — father to black children — backed down from his own police department — arguably one of the biggest criminal enterprises in the world. Find the fissures and exploit them. DeBlasio has now lost all credibility, and the number of New York residents who despise the NYPD has grown exponentially. The state is losing its legitimacy, and this is a big thing.
Trump’s fear that drove him into the White House bunker is that there won’t be enough cops. That’s why he let his mouth overload his ass with talk of unleashing the military; and that’s why he’s already dog whistling to his Proud Boy types that they need to inaugurate a race war. He isn’t just terrified of losing the election — though that figures heavily into his thinking — he’s terrified because he can’t fix this with his macho bluster. He looks weak, when his whole appeal was as a fakey-jake strong man. His own base might begin to see what an utter tinpot fraud he is. He is afraid he’ll lose control, and the name Trump will forever be associated with the breakdown of order. (His real legacy will be rather like some Romanov idiot-king who historians will cite as an amusing footnote.)
When he sicced his (unidentified) force on peaceful White House demonstrators to make a path for his goofy church photo op, he lost support by the bucketful. When cops and (maybe) special operations troops conceal their identities, it’s a sure sign they mean ill, that they know what they’re doing is wrong, and that they are desperate. But it plays in our favor, because we can out them as liars and criminals. And Trump just associated himself with that in a very direct and public way.
As to the white militia nuts who cosplay with guns, and who Trump believes is his reserve Sturmabteilung, I do not fear them, and neither should you. They engender overreaction because they attract cameras. But they are a weak, disorganized force of fantasy commandos, whose actual numbers are extremely small. Real soldiers would put these nimrods down like rabid dogs in a fight. When they cosplayed on the State House steps in Lansing a while back, phone traces showed that they drove from five states to achieve their pitiful numbers. Every time one of these dickhead militias has tried to do public demonstrations, like they tried in Durham NC and elsewhere, they’ve been swarmed by counter-demonstrators by about 100 to one. One of them tried firing arrows (no shit) into a demonstration earlier this week, and got a country ass-whuppin’ for his trouble.
The fact is, this uprising is spreading around the world.
An irony is that just as the whole Sanders election movement lost its leader, and could have faded away, the police murder of George Floyd has given the Sanders refugees a refreshed focal point. I promise you that a very large portion of those white, Hispanic, Native, Middle-Eastern, and Asian folks who are participating in this uprising — a very good sign, by the way — were Sanders supporters. Just as they were knocked back by the Clintonites in the electoral arena, increasing their militancy, they had a way to reassert themselves in a far more unequivocal way. African America is leading right now, and it is gaining allies at a breakneck pace. The fact that popular forces are majority youth is indicative of a larger demographic thunderhead on the horizon for the Democratic establishment as well as the Trump cult.
The mask was ripped off the electoral process; and now its being ripped off the state itself as it bares its fangs. If we see unions join in, the shit is so definitely on. With an over-leveraged economy, hit by a pandemic, and sliding rapidly into the second Great Depression (and let’s not forget we are also in an rapidly accelerating climate crisis) . . . and now, a boiling anti-police uprising, the wheels are coming off of United States of America, a failing state in a failing system — capitalism.
This proto-movement has taken off, and it’s going to do what it’s going to do. My hope is that it will not prematurely de-escalate. Note, I am not saying I’d like to see it escalate, and escalation is not synonymous with violence. Adventurism is the death of movements. I am saying I hope it holds the line (and the streets) until the police are forced to stand down. With unemployment at record levels and schools temporarily boarded up, popular forces can maintain a strong street presence. With a few adaptive tactics, they (we) can drain the resources of the police through massive overtime payouts until they are dead broke. Popular forces take some hits, but its a classic rope-a-dope strategy: let them punch themselves into a state of exhaustion. Break the budgets. Meanwhile, record everything.
Your phone camera is your friend. Phone cameras are the new weapon of the masses. They’re our mask ripper-offers.