News of the Republic’s Death Greatly Exaggerated

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(The relevant portion of the video begins at the 2:25 mark. Warning: strong language, nsfw.)


Br. Andrew writes concerning President Obama:

I think that it bears repeating here that for all of the hope and talk of change that accompanied this president, he has not only failed to deliver much of anything he pledged during his presidential campaign…

Maybe this is simply hyperbole that I shouldn’t take too seriously, but this isn’t right.  As the mid-term Congressional elections are today and the Democrats are headed to significant losses, the narrative around Obama and his supposed "failures" so far in office become extremely crucial.  He is already being written off as a one-term President by both friend and enemy alike.  There are no guarantees (and I have no crystal ball), but I wouldn't dismiss him so quickly.

The following are what I consider to be some counterexamples to Andrew’s argument:

Obama came into office promising to uphold the treaty between his predecessor (George W. Bush) and the Iraqi government to get combat troops out of Iraq. He held to that deadline.

He promised a health care reform bill and that passed—arguably the most important piece of Democratic legislation since the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s. He promised a financial regulatory reform bill, which was also passed.*

Obama even promised to escalate the war in Afghanistan and start unilaterally attacking the borderlands, even into Pakistan (a supposed ally). You might disagree with that policy, but you can’t say he didn’t deliver on his promises. [Change you Can Believe In?]


Now, Obama also wanted to get an immigration reform and climate change reform bill through Congress. He also promised to end the discriminatory Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) Policy.


The American President unfortunately has little to no actual power when it comes to domestic US policy. The US President is not a prime minister. Everything depends (domestically) on the Congress and unfortunately Congress is the least effective of the three branches of the US government (for both structural and cultural reasons--just google Obama un-American and watch in horror).  Obama is furthermore saddled with being a member of the pathetic Democratic party.

Even still, without The Republican minority in the Senate employing the non-democratic filibuster at every opportunity, more reforms would have likely passed (e.g. Cap and Trade Climate Bill).

Undoubtedly, there are many areas in which to fault Obama. His mortgage foreclosure plan has been an absolute disaster. He’s failed to make articulate a narrative framework of governance while in power, failing as Democrats have for many years to offer a coherent governing vision (rather than specific policy proposals). He hasn’t responded forcefully to the intransigence of the Republican and conservative establishment.

One area where he has made many promises and actually has the power to make them a reality is in the area of detention policy. He signed an executive order to close Guantanamo Bay, but Congress and in particular members of his own Democratic party, gutlessly sold him up the river in response to right-wing fear mongering concerning terrorist trials in the US criminal system. He has ended torture as US policy.

But in other arenas, he has accelerated extra-judicial (or even illegal) practices begun under President Bush and even started some of his own.

On that note, Andrew continues:

[Obama] has gone even further than W. in challenging the very basis of the democracy America still pretends to be. The right to habeas corpus and freedom from summary execution are even perhaps more important than freedom of speech or assembly or commerce in any system purporting to be government of and by the people.

It needs to be broadcast far and wide that the most recent president of the United States of America – no, not W but rather the much lauded Barrack Obama – has now granted himself the authority to order the extra-judicial assassinations of American citizens overseas.

First off, the title of Andrew's post is The Death of the Republic but then here interchanges (incorrectly in my view) democracy for republic. The democratic institutions of the US are functioning quite well in their most basic sense—elections are occurring which are causing certain politicians to lose their jobs who then cede said jobs by peaceful measures. Hell, the democracy that Obama is supposedly killing according to Andrew elected him.  And in honor of today's coming smashing of the Democrats, the House (and possibly the Senate) will belong to the opposition party.  

In contrast, a republic is a liberal order of civil rights that are not up for democratic vote. Here Andrew is correct that Obama’s policy regarding habeus corpus is indeed a rather chilling one. Though Abraham Lincoln suspended the same right in a much wider and far more brutal way during the Civil War.

But does this really augur the death of the US republic? We are talking about the US here yes? The same US that for its first 75 years had human slaves? That ethnically cleansed the aboriginal peoples of the country? That under the supposedly sainted Franklin Roosevelt, illegally put its own citizens of Japanese descent into internment camps? That up until the 1960s had legally enforced segregation in the South and still does not recognize gay marriage over the vast majority of the country?


I strongly disagree with Obama’s policy to order the assassination of American citizens abroad, but I think some perspective is necessary before we start proclaiming the death of a republic. In comparison to the aforementioned, the targeted killing of US citizens in trans-national terrorists groups is again quite disturbing but not I would say in the same league as the others.

Here, I think it’s worth mentioning that when we're discussing international policy in an age of trans-national terrorism, Presidents are bound by the logic of democratic popularity and their sense of being Executive Chief to do essentially whatever they have at their disposal. The Supreme Court can only decide that certain Presidential actions are illegal and rule them unconstitutional as occurred during the Bush presidency (with a conservative court btw) in Rumsfeld vs Hamdan.   The Supreme Court however cannot make laws and declare what Presidents should do in this regard.

Only Congress can make laws. And Congress is refusing to do its job of setting a national (and frankly bipartisan) framework for what constitutes legal and illegal conduct in the Global War on Terror. Such a legal framework simply does not exist. This is the central argument of the cogent book, Law and the Long War by Benjamin Wittes.


In integral theory, every moment consists of the four dimensions of [UL} subjective/psychological, [LL} intersubjective/cultural, [UR] objective/material, [LR] and interobjective/technological-economic.

I want to focus for a second on the LR technological-economic dimension of existence in regards to terrorism and the law. Jack Balkin, Yale Professor of Law, has coined the term National Surveillance State to describe the rise of technologies of information gathering. As the LR shift, so eventually must the Lower Left, cultural norming dimension of existence, codified in law.  With the rise of information sharing technologies, our norms around what constitutes privacy, liberty, national identity, civil rights, they are going to change.  It may entail some loss of those rights.  I would rather we have that conversation then let it take place in an unconscious manner through the media cycle.  

What is occurring right now is a quadratic disconnect between for example the technologies of unmanned aerial drones along with digitized supercheap information gathering technologies and the legal system. The one (the technologies) are out ahead of the other.

I’ll say again that Obama’s policy is certainly a dangerous one, but unless Congress creates a broad legal framework within which the US President can be held accountable any personal attacks on a President (or presidents) is pretty much a waste of time. Even if Obama did not follow up on this policy, his successor I’m sure would. Without the President being bound by a legal framework established by the Congress, the law of democratic elections suggests that any President that has a technology available to him not yet declared illegal (e.g. wiretapping) and doesn’t use it will be demolished in the court of public opinion in an upcoming election.  A President needs to be told what are the parameters of what is legal and what is illegal in regards to the War on Terror. Otherwise the President becomes a law unto himself--he makes it up as he goes along.  Clinton did, W. Bush did and now Obama is too.  

If we want to discuss dangers to the health of the republic—a fascinating topic I think we should debate—then my question is:

What is left of a republic when the masses desire the tyranny of one?


Here’s Obama’s own words on this point in a recent Rolling Stone interview-

“When I talk to Democrats around the country, I tell them, “Guys, wake uphere. We have accomplished an incredible amount in the most adverse circumstances available”. I came in and had to prevent a Great Depression, restore the financial system so that it functions, and manage two wars. In the midst of all that, I ended one of those wars, as least in terms of combat operations. We passed historic health care legislation, historic financial regulatory reform and a huge number of legislative victories that peopledon’t even notice. We wrestled away billions of dollars of profit that were going to banks and middlemen through the student-loan program, and now we have tens of billions of dollars that are going directly to students to help them pay for college. We expanded national service more than we ever have before. The Recovery Act alone represented the largest investment in research and development in our history, the largest investment in infrastructure since Dwight Eisenhower, the largest investment in education- and that was combined, by the way, with the kind of education reform that we hadn’t seen in thiscountry in 30 years- and the largest investment in clean energy in our history”.


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  • Comment Link David Tuesday, 02 November 2010 23:38 posted by David

    Nice post, Chris. Many good and interesting points.

    With regard to extra-legal assassinations, I don't think it would work to say that a president simply cannot order the assassination of an American citizen. If such a law were in place, it would enable American citizens to wage war against the country or its interests as long as they could elude capture.

    If Osama Bin Laden had been an American citizen, should the president not have the right to order a drone attack that kills him if he won't give himself up and continues to work toward another attack? I think the question should be, What should be the procedure for such cases, and in this case has the procedure been adequate?

    I also wouldn't assume that Obama is simply motivated by political fear in this case. Since simply barring a president the power to assassinate U.S. citizens who are waging war against the country is untenable, I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt in terms of making the choice that he has deemed most ethical.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Wednesday, 03 November 2010 17:46 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Here's another perspective to add to the mix. Despite it's title, it's a pretty inventive website supporting what Obama has done so far. It has a list even longer than what's listed in this article.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Wednesday, 03 November 2010 23:21 posted by Chris Dierkes


    I think what we need is an over-arching legal frame for the Global War on Terror. Otherwise we keep coming up with these individual issues (e.g. assassinations) and then everybody breaks into their various camps.

    This is dangerous territory and like I said it will require some major re-thinking of our legal apparatus. Balkin things we are heading to a future where we are increasingly aiming at prevention rather than ex post facto detention.

    We live in an age (for some) of post-nationalism or trans-nationalism. I actually think the US should do much more with the International Criminal Court. Capture a guy like this and send him there.

    I think that's a better model (as much as it can be done) than simply deciding to a put a hit out on a guy. Particularly in this case of this gent where he is inciting others to fight rather than (it seems) fighting so much himself.

  • Comment Link David Thursday, 04 November 2010 07:01 posted by David

    Hi Chris,

    Yes, I agree that what we need is an over-arching frame for the Global War on Terror. I also agree that we need to head in the direction of global bodies like the International Criminal Court. I think we are a long ways from that, however, largely because there can be such a difference between premodern, modern, postmodern, and integral ethics, and we would probably see each of these ethics represented among the countries that would have to come to an agreement.

    I also agree that it would be ideal to capture the suspect and put him on trial, give him a chance to defend himself, a counsel, etc. But I don't think it will be workable in all situations. Now and then intelligence agencies do nab a guy like that, but in many cases a raid to capture someone would likely result in many deaths and wounded, if it could succeed at all, whereas a single bullet or poison, as harsh and awful as it sounds, would result in less death and destruction overall.

    But of course there needs to be a procedure in place, a series of steps to follow, some oversight or review (perhaps from a different branch of government), some checks and balances, but not so much to make it inefficient.

    We know that little groups within the executive branch can do some twisted things on occasion, so I don't feel entirely comfortable leaving it up to them, but I think there would need to be an efficient, streamlined process.

  • Comment Link Andrew Friday, 05 November 2010 00:58 posted by Andrew

    Wow David! I find your position frightening. I do. Honestly.

    You talk of the ideals of due process - the fundamental tenet of both the American republic and its political system - but then return to hypothetical scenarios in which you offer up as a justification for extra-legal assassination a utilitarian argument about the value of a single bullet and how this can stave off bigger hurt!

    There is always a theoretical ticking time-bomb somewhere that can be carted out. It is with this form of utilitarianism that torture is justified, this is how the dropping of the atomic bombs and the carpet-bombing of Cambodia were sold, and now you'd have us grant to a single man (or group of people) the right to order the murder of Americans on secret, unreviewable evidence from a chronically misinformed and untrustworthy intelligence system.

    Because it would be more convenient and efficient!?

    Again. Wow.

    The point you seem to be missing is that the further civil liberties are eroded, the less there is to distinguish us from those nasty terrorists we are to kill.

    All those things that make the United States a beacon to the world are extinguished by this new - and this is new - right. For if the president has this right, and I want you to consider this seriously, what right does he not have? What can he not do? And then, what makes him any different from any other tin pot dictator?

    An efficient and streamlined process? Huh.

  • Comment Link David Friday, 05 November 2010 02:45 posted by David

    Andrew, I think you are missing the point. The point is, if someone is waging war against the country, does the President have a right to stop him, or is the most a President can do is ask really nicely or really sternly for the person to stop?

    I think it's frightening that there is a large group of people in the country (often going by the name "progressive") that agree with your position. It's also, by the way, one reason we have so many Republicans in office (the other major one being that progressives have a tendency to disassociate with modern perspectives on economics). As long as we have progressives with this sort of platform, we can look forward to more and more Republican victories.

    They are not all wrong about their critiques about progressives, and you gave a fine example--you would allow an American citizen to wage war against the country for as long as he pleased. Would you grant the President the right to capture him, or would that, too, be an infringement of his rights?

    Now, maybe in this case there is no justification to assassinate him. That might well be true. We could certainly debate about that, but if your position is that under no circumstances could a President order the death of an American citizen waging war against the country, no matter what sort of process was in place to prevent mistakes, I don't really think it's worth my time to debate that.

    "The point you seem to be missing is that the further civil liberties are eroded, the less there is to distinguish us from those nasty terrorists we are to kill."

    I think you need to make a distinction between the motivation between the two killings. Do you really place Obama's and Anwar al-Awlaki's motivations on the same ethical level? Isn't one of them trying prevent innocent deaths while the other is trying to cause them?

    "An efficient and streamlined process?"

    Well, yes, we couldn't have a situation where the family could appeal and delay the case for three years. That would defeat the purpose and perhaps result in innocent deaths.

    This will probably be my last response to you on this issue.

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Thursday, 11 November 2010 07:33 posted by Bergen Vermette

    Hi David,

    I understand you may not respond to a continuation of this conversation. That’s fine, thanks for contributing thus far.

    You offer some good points, especially (in agreement with Chris) about the ICC, and your distinctions regarding ‘motivations’ (though *motivations* should be flushed out more given the many stake holders involved).

    I wanted to touch on what seems like a bit of casualness in the position you’re taking. I understand that you would prefer an ordered, ‘streamlined process’, with ‘checks and balances’. I’m in complete agreement with you. But I think that sort of system is already basically in place, and yet there’s still a long history of sloppy (and illegal?) assassinations.

    The problem is, it seems the people in the position of performing these ‘nabbings’ (as you call them) may not think like you and I. They may not be as concerned with the degree of ethics at the ICC or the stringent levels of transparency and procedure you are advocating. I’m not saying they’re bad people, just that their job requires different considerations.

    I understand there’ve been many cases in the past where their actions have caused far more harm than the ‘single bullet or poison’ that we like to imagine (hope) as the typical covert op (sounds naively James Bondish, I’m afraid).

    I think it’s helpful to put this conversation in the context of the many interventions of the Cold War. As we know the US, for example, frequently conducted discrete missions to kill undesirables in foreign countries. Usually this was justified under the pretense of halting the spread of Communist sympathies.

    At that time, as now, people operated with an inspired motivation to truly do good in the world. Westerners felt morally obligated (with sometimes good reason) to battle communism at whatever cost. It seemed perfectly justifiable to allow (or *trust*, I should say) our government to do the right thing, and to just get the job done.

    With hindsight we see that many of these interventions had serious and unforeseeable consequences. (Of course, killing one rouge American is clearly different than overthrowing an elected government. But I’d argue that it’s in exactly the same spirit, one of disregard for due process and insult to the moral high ground our leaders champion. )

    So I think the casual argument for assassination is weakened in the historical context of what has actually happened. Government officials who exercise the “right” to murder may exercise that right in a way (and frequency) that goes far beyond what we as a society would deem appropriate. The video linked below offers a bit more info here. I can’t be sure of the speaker’s sources, they may be exaggerated, but it’s at least a useful jump off point for exploring the historical circumstances that this argument exists within.

    Thanks again for adding your bit - hope to see you back on soon!

  • Comment Link Andrew Thursday, 11 November 2010 20:24 posted by Andrew


    I don't think that I anywhere have said that an American citizens actively waging war against the United States should, under no circumstances simply be allowed to continue waging war.

    I think you may be conflating my initial reservation about extra-judicial assassinations by presidential edict with the necessities of the battlefield.

    As to there being a qualitative difference between the actions of Obama and al-Awlaki, really? I don't doubt for a second that al-Awlaki believes that his cause is as just as Obama does his. So what? I'm not a terribly big enthusiast for utilitarianism or 'the ends justifying the means' arguments. Far to much room for evil if you ask me.

    I think that you are a bit too trusting of your government. That's all.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Thursday, 11 November 2010 21:38 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    I've really enjoyed this discussion. I've been going back and forth with every perspective, finding it hard to land on any one view permanently.

    I wanted to add one more perspective to this topic, one that might resonate with and/or expand upon the view that Andrew is voicing.

    The political theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue that we're now living in a permanent and general 'state of exception' (the temporary suspension of the constitution and the rule of law). They contend that the global war on terror is a discourse that "serves to mobilize all social forces and suspend or limit normal political exchange" (Multitude, 14)

    They write- "War always requires strict hierarchy and obedience and thus the partial or total suspension of democratic participation and exchange. "In wartime", explains the legal theorist Hans Kelsen, "the democratic principle has to yield to a strictly autocratic one: everyone must pay unconditional obedience to the leader". In the modern period the wartime suspension of democratic politics was usually posed as temporary, since war was conceived as an exceptional condition. If our hypothesis is correct and the state of war has instead become our permanent global condition, then the suspension of democracy tends also to be the norm rather than the exception" (17).

    A couple of other passage I thought were relevant here:

    "The idea of republican virtue has from it's beginning been aimed against the notion that the ruler, or indeed anyone, stands above the law. Such an exception is the basis of tyranny and makes impossible the realization of freedom, equality and democracy" (9).

    And on the subject of torture: "Torture is today becoming an ever more generalized technique of control...This is another face of the state of exception and the tendency for political power to free itself from the rule of law...Both dictatorships and liberal democracies use torture, the one by vocation and the other by so-called necessity. According to the logic of the state of exception, torture is an essential, unavoidable, and justifiable technique of power" (19).

    So it's entirely possible that something far more generalized (and sinister) is at work in this whole scenario. I'd be interested in how Chris or David would respond to this perspective. There seems to be a fundamental fault line at play underneath this discussion.

    David makes the point at the end of his last comment:

    "I think you need to make a distinction between the motivation between the two killings. Do you really place Obama's and Anwar al-Awlaki's motivations on the same ethical level? Isn't one of them trying prevent innocent deaths while the other is trying to cause them?"

    I think this is an important point, but I personally wouldn't so quickly ascribe such high moral motivations on the side of Obama/US power. I think it's worth repeating Noam Chomsky's claim that by the definition of terrorism used by the United States government, the United States itself is the greatest author of terrorism in the world today. Chomsky points to the legitimate regimes it has overthrown and its record of violations of human rights and the rules of war. There is very little in the history of the global uses of US state power that would make me trust that any new powers will be used in such a morally straightforward and upright way.

    I was watching the History of Scotland last night, and up until at least 1300 AD (that's where the episode finished), war, plunder and the subjugation or annihilation of whole peoples was a perfectly common/normal way for groups to gain political power and resources. Why do we think we have outgrown this cruel, barbaric side of ourselves only seven hundred years later? Because we live in democracies? I don't think our inner plunderer lives very far from the surface, and I think we need to be careful about dismantling those structure of our current civilization that might be holding these forces in check.

    Generally speaking, I lean toward Andrew in being very suspicious of power, and think we should keep one critical eye cocked open on it at all times.

    Thanks for getting this discussion going David!

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Friday, 12 November 2010 21:01 posted by Chris Dierkes


    These are some good points. Agamben is really the who came up with the State of Exception. Agamben's analysis I find much more honest than Hardt or Negri. I think their notion of The Multitude is just about utter crap (a la Zizek).

    So I actually agree with Agamben that we live in a state of exception. I assume it's been going on since at least The Great Depression, so it becomes unclear to me how helpful a framework it really is. At least for me since I don't think any Multitude is coming that is going to change the system. And at least in the US The Multitude right now is largely regressive (see previous election).

    I think there is definitely a slide into newer forms of violence that are problematic with unmanned aerial drones and the like But the reality is there is no weaponized invention that humanity has ever created that has not been used. I recommend P.W. Singer's Wired for War. Information technology is already the mode of warfare and is only going to increase with robotics, nanotech, etc.

    That's why I would like to create some legal framework (even in a state of exception) to deal with this stuff.

    As to Chomsky, I find it not surprising that Osama bin Laden quotes him quite frequently. I get deconstruction (I really do) but at some point I find it really unhelpful to make the admittedly rough and inherently compromised choices/evaluations we of necessity must make. Obviously I'm not saying Chomsky is a terrorist or sympathizes with bin Laden. i just mean that his analysis can just as easily meld with a left-wing anti-imperialist view as it can with any other anti-imperialist view (including a terrorist one).

    Of course there is value in that perspective, but really how much is my question?

    If violence has lowered in human history (and it has, I agree on that one) and that the tendency towards rule of law and secular society has lessened that violence (and again I think it has), then I think a more helpful analysis is the ways in which so many wars today exist on the seam between nations with rule of law and without. And how those with (however fleeting the hold) rule of law get extricated--either by stupidity, necessity, some of both--in non rule of law countries. How should a country fight with a rule of law in a place without rule of law. The classic conundrum. The hard call. How do they do so without endangering there own rule of law?

    To me Chomsky too easily falls into a exponential metaphor where he says, "[Based on US' own definition], US is biggest purveyor of terrorism." I'm not sure it's right, but let's even say it is. Where do you go from there? Fight the US and then assume everything afterwards will be peaceful?

    It's too emotional and too simplistic in my mind. But like I said, I don't have a Multitude notion to fall back on. If I did, it would work. But since I don't, I don't think it does.

  • Comment Link David Saturday, 13 November 2010 08:09 posted by David

    Some really interesting comments, everyone. I can't respond at the moment, but I hope to be able to get back into it within a few days.



  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Saturday, 13 November 2010 22:28 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Chris, it looks like we got some good 'evolutionary tension' going here!!
    A couple points of response.

    First, to be nerdy, I believe the concept of the state of exception goes back to the (Nazi, fascist) philosopher Carl Schmitt. Also, Hardt and Negri use the concept in their book The Multitude which was published a year before Agamben's text. I'm just sayin is all.

    In terms of their concept of the multitude, I'm personally attracted to it on several levels, so I guess I can put on the hat of the official house Hardt and Negri supporter around here. Part of it is pure gut instinct I must admit; however, another part is that (as Zizek himself points out) it's the definitive attempt at a Deleuzian politics. So the concept, and the text it's fleshed out in (which I assume you're familiar with), is working with notions of assemblages, flow theory, networks, processes, relations and the like. I feel they are sensitive to prevailing life conditions in this way, and have the conceptual tools to both make sense of it and act within it.

    At any rate, to come from another angle, I would ask how you view the phenomenon of social change or social transformation in general. How does it happen? What were the causes and formations of, say, the political revolutions of modernity, which overthrew the old order and imposed new legal codes and new forms of life? Was not a certain 'multitude' involved in these? What about the upheavals of the 1960s and the whole series of social transformations that this brought? Or to put it another way, where in your view does social transformation emanate from, from above (ruling power) or from pressure below. My understanding of history is that it's overwhelmingly the latter. What is your sense of this? The view we hold on this question could hold a great key as to whether we're optimistic or not about collaborative social action as being a real generative source of social-political transformation, no matter what the size of the tyranny involved.

    I'm also personally attracted to the concept of the multitude ("irreducible singularities that come together in common") as a post-postmodern push towards a worldcentric identity. In this way I feel it's an Eros laden concept, I think it's properly feeling into the general (global, cosmic?) push towards higher and higher levels of integration and cooperation (the fundamentalist reaction to this notwithstanding). Their notion of "the flesh of the multitude" is apparently a riff on the Christian notion of “the word becoming flesh”, which I'm sure isn't lost on you. They even employ love as a key political concept for the political project of the multitude! They say "the concept of love is just what we need to grasp the constituent power of the multitude...Christianity and Judaism, for example, both conceive love as a political act that constitutes the multitude…Love can serve as the basis for our political projects in common and the construction of a new society. Without this love we are nothing”.

    There’s a lot more to be said about the multitude, and as you recognize at the end of your comments, our views on this issue have big consequences for what courses of action we deem possible. The multitude (or perhaps better, global civil society) is something we build ourselves with our hands and in every interaction, it’s formed no other way. And it’s already happening. This is what Paul Hawken describes in his book Blessed Unrest. Literally millions of organizations, working in networked fashion, with no central leader or doctrine, that doesn’t get a lot of press. You add to that the movements happening within business and organizational development etc., and I think the multitude is not only a very real possibility, but already under way.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Saturday, 13 November 2010 23:30 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Now on to Chomsky!

    I deliberately threw Chomsky out there because I figured his sheer name would agitate someone and get something going, which it apparently did. Chomsky seems to be a very emotionally loaded figure for people, which I find interesting. Why is that? I personally think his views- which believe it or not I find fairly moderate- need some resuscitation, particularly in integral circles where, via Thomas Barnett and a general push against the green meme, Chomsky’s analysis has tended to be transcended without a whole lot of inclusion. So I guess I might as well throw my hat in the ring as the official Chomsky supporter around here too! Maybe I need some sort of Kierkegaardian like pseudonym while playing this role, like Deeptis Lefticus or something like that!

    I personally don’t locate Chomsky where you do, if I’m reading you right. If I may speak in explicitly integral terms for a moment, you mention the word deconstruction which I take it means you see Chomsky as a sort of postmodern figure who prevails in deconstructing the current system. I don’t view Chomsky this way. I see Chomsky as mainly an Enlightenment rationalist who is upholding the dignity of modernity against its disasters (to use Wilber’s terms). I see him as a moral force that is constantly holding a mirror up to the hypocrisies of our modern nation states and global institutions. If we are going to say we’re for values like freedom to organize, freedom of speech, human rights, equality, justice, national sovereignty etc., then we must actually act by these principles. Chomsky’s work to me is largely a long litany of the ways in which the dominant powers of the world-system do not actually uphold these values, and in fact constantly work against them whenever possible.

    When it comes to his point on terrorism and the US, I see it as a very basic rational-analytic point. The US has a definition of terrorism, and based on that definition, a look at historical facts indicates that the US is in fact the greatest perpetrator of this kind of activity. What I find interesting is the emotionally charged reaction people can have (not necessarily you) when they're faced with this straightforward argument. I can’t help but feel that some of the resistance comes from the dissolution of an identity forming myth narrative about the greatness and the exceptionalism of the US. I’m not sure how else to explain the reaction people have when folks like Chomsky try and tell people to indeed pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

    Lastly, I’m not sure what point you were fully trying to make when you said “I just mean that his analysis can just as easily meld with a left-wing anti-imperialist view as it can with any other anti-imperialist view (including a terrorist one)”. Is there a problem to have an anti-imperialist view? Why? And so what if his analysis rings true to the situation of Bin-Laden. Maybe Bin-Laden recognizes some good analysis when sees it. ☺ I assume there’s a deeper point you were trying to make here, but I can’t yet pull it out of the sentence above.

    Thanks Chris (and David et al), I’m really enjoying the opportunity to wrestle with and work through some of these issues.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Monday, 15 November 2010 07:10 posted by Chris Dierkes

    As to The Multitude, I think it's a well thought out and a very interesting process but ultimately won't work. But what the hell do I know of. This is a much longer thing, but I think Deleuze over-emphasizes space to the detriment of place. His metaphors (geology, physics, etc) are very space-centered and hence (I think) his whole emphasis on nomadism and de-territorializing and re-territorializing.

    The John Robb stuff on resilient communities seems much more "place" based than spaced-based.

    I think place could be revolutionary but space really isn't. There I think Zizek is right that The Multitude will just be assimilated and co-opted and not revolutionary. I don't think that makes it bad (I think some real good could come out of it) but I don't think it will do what it claims to be able to do.

    I'm thinking of Zizek's comment to Vattimo that Vattimo's weak communism would need a strong state and army. Though Zizek does say (and I agree with this) that at least Hardt and Negri are talking political economy (over a Badiou who doesn't).

    I'm not sure i have any theory or prescription of social change in history. I'm not sure what the lesson of the 60s is really (here I think Foucault is speaking through me). There was civil rights. Drafts were ended after Vietnam but that has also prevented anti-war protests from having any real effect as the military is now a very private affair.

    It seems whatever elements were brought out in the 60s have largely been assimilated to the powers that be. Here I would agree with Hardt and Negri. To use a horrible term "the system" realized that it was easier to play along and give cheap credit than fight for certain conformity models of the 50s. This leaves what "No Logo" as a protest model? What's the alternative Bono-style neo-colonial celebrity philanthropy?

    [Sidenote: You may be right about Carl Schmitt, but Agamben wrote about state of exemption in the 90's before Hardt & Negri, but whatever.]

    So while I think the state of exemption model has some validity, I don't buy (a la Naomi Klein or Zizek) that China is the new model. By China I mean authoritarian capitalism. That's what everybody said about fascism and communism in the 1930s--that it was a superior system. Eventually I think China will either implode or be forced into some other political arrangement.

    I think it's more nuanced than all that. It's not as positive as Barnett (though it includes elements of "light" side of globalism), includes Bobbitt's market-state, includes critiques from a Zizek, is interested (if still at a pretty far distance) in the revival of communist discourse from Vattimo, Hardt/Negri, Badiou, etc. And of course my real interest is more in the John Robb resilient communities and the future of neo-city states.

    This is where my critique of Chomsky comes from. By deconstruction I meant basically what you meant by analytic critic not postmodern versus modern.

    It's a helpful perspective to be sure. It points out what's wrong. But I don't see him giving much in the way of what to do differently. For me, Chomsky is in the line of JJ Rosseau--if only we got rid of the imperial chains free and good natured man would everywhere do well. I don't hold that view of human nature.

    As to anti-imperial ideology, of course it has its place. I used to read a lot of the stuff and feel like once you basically get it, it doesn't really evolve--they're just saying the same things over and over again.

    My problem with Chomsky (not emotional but intellectual in nature) is that it's anti-imperial but does not (for me) include enough anti-insurgency stuff. In that sense, I would say it's still very classic left-wing and quite partial. It borders on the romantic.

    It's not anti-imperialism that's the problem it's anti-imperialism without an equal critic of anti-anti-imperialism (or what I called anti-insurgency).

    Take Hamas. I've long argued that should have had their election results accepted and been part of the Palestinian government (that's after I said they shouldn't have held the elections to begin with, but that's another story). But I'm not naive about truly awful they are.

    Same with Afghan Taliban. I"ve said on B&S to cut a deal with them (at least in the south of Afghanistan). But truth be told I can't honestly say that they won't invite al-Qaeda back in or be insane again like the 1990s. They're fucking insane and that's not simply a product of the imperial occupations in the region--though of course those have been a significantly terrible part of it too.

    But Chomsky to me takes too soft a line on various anti-imperial figures like these groups (as well as Chavez and Castro). I think they have to be dealt with but I don't have any naivete around how brutal many of them are. As well as brutal "we" can be.

    So what I'm more interested in is this "both/and" position. What Kegan was talking about at the integral theory conference where a side thinks about both its views and the views of its opponents (or in this case enemies) and may not come to agreement on them but does not break relationship.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Monday, 15 November 2010 07:19 posted by Chris Dierkes

    One more thing--the civil rights movement wasn't really a civil rights movement. It was a religious revival movement within the black churches (and some white ones and synagogues) that had social and political goals and successes. Taylor Branch's three volumes on King make that very clear.

    So in terms of my theory of public change...maybe I'm a theocrat? :) Not that I think the government should enforce some public religion (that screws up both religion and state) but I actually do think non-religious political movements (either capitalist or revolutionary) tend to go very bad.

  • Comment Link David Wednesday, 17 November 2010 05:51 posted by David

    Hi, Bergen. Those are interesting points.

    "I wanted to touch on what seems like a bit of casualness in the position you’re taking. I understand that you would prefer an ordered, ‘streamlined process’, with ‘checks and balances’. I’m in complete agreement with you. But I think that sort of system is already basically in place, and yet there’s still a long history of sloppy (and illegal?) assassinations."

    My understanding is that there isn't a system in place in the way I mean it. Al-Awlaki's family sued the government over the targeting, and one of the things they sought was "to require the government to disclose the standards under which U.S. citizens may be 'targeted for death.'"

    I think that is a reasonable request, to know what "standards" are in place, and I'm not sure there really are any now. I think it's been a pretty ad-hoc process, as far as I know.

    "The problem is, it seems the people in the position of performing these ‘nabbings’ (as you call them) may not think like you and I. They may not be as concerned with the degree of ethics at the ICC or the stringent levels of transparency and procedure you are advocating. I’m not saying they’re bad people, just that their job requires different considerations."

    I think that's an important point, that these people have a particular job to do, and they might pursue their goals too narrowly.

    The other issue is that even if the laws are modern or postmodern, some of the people executing the law may not have the cognitive and ethical development to appreciate modern and postmodern ethics.

    A lot of people ask, "Why doesn't the U.S. live up to its ideals?" It does largely, but, like everywhere else, not every American has the cognition or ethical development to appreciate those modern and postmodern ideals, so they will do something different.

    For example, Lyndon Johnson wasn't the kind of guy who would rape or kill civilians on purpose, nor were most Americans, but some of the young men who went to Vietnam were. Of course we also have to consider the stress and training and so forth, as well as the nature of the war.

    If we don't understand that humans develop through various cognitive and ethical stages, we are liable to think Americans are rapists and murderers because some young soldiers in Vietnam were rapists and murderers.

    I also think it's unlikely that the ICC would be able to handle these cases adequately at this point. They would all need integral cognition, ethics, and values, and I am pretty sure that isn't the case yet. I think it's likely that they would make decisions that would seem peaceful on the surface but less likely that they would make decisions that would be evolutionary in the long run and fair to the United States. But I do think something like that will be adequate in the future, and we need to move in that direction.

    "I understand there’ve been many cases in the past where their actions have caused far more harm than the ‘single bullet or poison’ that we like to imagine (hope) as the typical covert op (sounds naively James Bondish, I’m afraid)."

    Ha. :) Maybe the "single bullet" is a little James Bondish, but I think poisoning is still a favored method. For example, the cases of Alexander Litvinenko:

    and Khaled Mashal:

    "With hindsight we see that many of these interventions had serious and unforeseeable consequences. (Of course, killing one rouge American is clearly different than overthrowing an elected government. But I’d argue that it’s in exactly the same spirit, one of disregard for due process and insult to the moral high ground our leaders champion. )"

    It's true that there were many mistakes during the Cold War and many innocent victims, but it's also true that the United States largely did the right thing during that period and that the world is better off as a result of its efforts. The world would not be better off if the Soviet Union had won the Cold War.

    "So I think the casual argument for assassination is weakened in the historical context of what has actually happened. Government officials who exercise the “right” to murder may exercise that right in a way (and frequency) that goes far beyond what we as a society would deem appropriate."

    We have to be careful first of all not to judge a country entirely by what it's done in its history. If that's what we did, we would never trust any of the colonial powers, Germany, Japan, Russia. I don't think what the United States did in the fifties and sixties, for example, is an indication of what it will do now.

    I think we have to see the developmental context. People do evolve; cultures do evolve. Also, I think we have to put ourselves in the place of the U.S. The U.S. was taking responsibility for the security of the developed world and became the target of many countries as a result. We don't know that any other country would have done better in the same position. Certainly no country that has had such relative power (Japan, Germany, the Soviet Union, the colonial powers) has acted as well as the United States, despite its mistakes.

    The point is, for the most part the U.S. has done a good job "leading the free world"(a great many countries have flourished as a result), so I don't think it makes sense to mistrust Obama because there were some mistakes and because some individuals didn't live up to those modern or postmodern ethics.

  • Comment Link David Wednesday, 17 November 2010 06:54 posted by David

    Trevor, I enjoyed reading about the "state of exception." I think that's very interesting.

    I think that is very important to consider. I think individuals and collectives do tend to take a dip developmentally in times of stress, and we need to to be vigilant about that. There were a number of instances of this after 9/11 that were unnecessary, in my view.

    At the same time I think we have to take the evolutionary view here--new challenging are always arising, challenges that lawmakers did not and could not have envisioned. And if things are evolving more rapidly than they ever have before, this could create a situation that looks like the "state of exception" but is really individuals and governments scrambling to meet new challenges.

    With regard to things like prisoners held without due process, I think we need to look at it in the same light. Our laws were made so that nine guilty men would go free so that not one innocent man would go to jail. But the consequences of nine guilty men going free were not so great; society could easily absorb those criminals.

    That is increasingly less the case. It would not be the case, for example, when individuals with a pre-modern worldview (McVeigh, 9/11)get a hold of modern technology. The consequences of guilty men going free have risen. It is also not fantasy that terrorists are trying to get wmd and would use them if they got them; it is simply that people tend to improve what they have put their minds to.

    "I think it's worth repeating Noam Chomsky's claim that by the definition of terrorism used by the United States government, the United States itself is the greatest author of terrorism in the world today."

    Here is the definition Chomsky uses:

    "Terrorism is the use of coercive means aimed at civilian populations in an effort to achieve political, religious, or other aims."

    And that does sound like:

    "Definitions ... the term 'terrorism' means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents;"[50]

    However, it hasn't been official U.S. policy to target noncombatants at least since World War II, and it was arguably justified then to end the war (something, of course, Chomsky doesn't appear to seriously consider). Certainly millions more would have died on both sides if Japan had been invaded.

    It is worth noting, also, that the U.S. entered that war with an entirely different idea of warfare. They wanted to go after not cities but the most fundamental aspects of the military-industrial complex. So they went after ball-bearing plants in Germany and such, even though the British wanted to bomb populations. But bombing ball-bearing plants didn't work, and they had to adjust. In Japan, industry was very well-dispersed.

    In any case, by the time Vietnam rolled around no one wanted to go that far even if it meant not winning. They could have gone just as far. Le May would have gone that far again if they had let him and if they had elected him and Wallace in 1968, but he hardly got any votes.

    I think we also just need to regard those wars as of a different era. It's very difficult to put ourselves in their shoes, if not impossible, and unfair to judge them by postmodern standards, which hadn't even emerged in WWII and were just beginning to emerge during Vietnam.

    I find Chomsky a little difficult to pigeonhole all in all, but his remarks on foreign policy are completely one sided. He shows an almost complete inability to see from more than one point of view (the postmodern), though in other areas I think he is brighter than that. I found this recent article on the Middle East peace process to be entirely one sided:

    I don't see that that one sidedness adds anything to the debate.

    "There is very little in the history of the global uses of US state power that would make me trust that any new powers will be used in such a morally straightforward and upright way."

    Are there any countries that have benefited and flourished under U.S. power? Any countries that have been able to build universal health-care systems because they didn't have to worry about security or protecting their shipping or their borders? Isn't it true that, despite some mistakes, the U.S. has largely wielded power in such a way that has benefited most countries of the world?

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Sunday, 21 November 2010 02:07 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Chris and David (et al), thanks for the great exchange. Chris, I suspect we'll be working through some of these things as time goes on (and your final point I couldn't agree with more). David I look forward to picking up a couple of threads, but I'm in the middle of a big work stint and won't be back on for a few days. Good, time to mull some things over. Nice to see the Beams political salon beginning to open up.

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