Complicity (or not) of citizens in the imperial core
In The Sword and the Dollar, Michael Parenti writes:
"Americans are victimized by economic imperialism not only as workers but as taxpayers and consumers. The billions of tax dollars that corporations escape paying because of their overseas shelters must be made up by the rest of us... Our tax money also serves as hidden subsidies to the big companies when used as foreign aid to finance the kind of infrastructure (roads, plants, ports) needed to support extractive industries in the Third World."
He says, in a lecture along similar lines, again, that to clarify the distinction he's making, "'We go into this country, we go into that country; we do this and we do that'. And I'm going 'Shh! Shh! We don't do anything, they do it to us. We are part of the victims, we are not part of the victimizers.'"– the sort of palpable frustration of the ordinary citizen who does not see themselves reflected in the actions of their state. Some, like Parenti, take this distinction to mean that there is more required of the citizenry beyond simply rebuking the action and separating one's self out from the equation is non-culpable. We are culpable, but we are also in a condition of being extracted from in order to extract from others, and the benefit to us is, ultimately, that we do live in a society that benefits from that wholesale extraction from the Global South.
Parenti goes onto conclude:
Those regions within the United States that serve as surpolus labor reserves or "internal colonies," such as Appalachia, poor Black and Latino communities, Eskimo Alaska, and Native American Indian lands, manifest sysmptoms of Third World colonization, including chronic underemployment, hunger, inadequate income, low levels of educaiton, inferior or nonexistent human services, absentee ownership, and extratction of profits form the indigenous community. In additon, the loss of skilled, higher- paying manufacturing jobs, traditionally held by White males, has taken its toll of working class White communites as well. So when we talk of "rich nations" and "poor nations" we must not forget that there are millions of poor in the rich nations and thousands of rich in the poor ones. As goes the verse by Bertolt Brecht:
There were conquerors and conquered. Among the conquered the common people starved. Among the conquerors the common people starved too.
As in Rome of old and in every empire since, the center is bled in order to fortify the periphery. The lives and treasure of the people are squandered so that patricians might pursue their far- off plunder.
In highlighting this distinction, he suggests it's an artificial one, that Americans, even the ones at the bottom, are made to feel by capital and imperialists that because the extraction was done in their name, they are necessarily better off, when the material reality is that they are, simply put, part of a global exploited class that shares a "side" as the imperialists see it, and that side is the bottom of a divide of conqueror and conquered.
We see this positioning reflected in western capitalist nation's media culture, a role it plays heavy on escapism, a relief from a crush of capitalism that we're also told isn't so bad. Adorno and Horkheimer say of this:
"Pleasure always means not to think about anything, to forget suffering even where it is shown. Basically it is helplessness. It is flight; not, as is asserted, flight from a wretched reality, but from the last remaining thought of resistance.”
and consistent with Adorno's aesthetic theory, there is art that resists this framing, seeking to not reflect a degraded state of its audience, but project revolutionary, dialectically materialist potential.
Two such examples are the New Jersey-based band Thursday's second and third albums, Full Collapse and War All the Time. I want to focus on the former for a lot of reasons, but the latter provides crucial context to the importance of why the first album had to be made. In Full Collapse's track, "Autobiography of a Nation" the narrator expresses guilt about the harm done in his name, empathy for whom carried the expense, and the loss he feels in it having been done for no one's benefit:
Write these words back down inside
We have burned their villages and all the people in them died
We adopt their customs and everything they say we steal
All the dreams they had we kill
Still we all sleep sound tonight
Is this what you wanted to hear?
We erased all their images and dance
And replaced them with borders and flags
The guilt is summarized as semiotic shorthand for having transgressed as an individual:
At the top of this timeline you'll remember
This is the lipstick on the collar
And in my own life I've seen it in the mirror
Sometimes at the cost of other's hopes
We're made to feel responsible for the actions of our state, we know there is a human on the other end of this transaction, so how else can you feel but personally culpable for the harm done? But what of the actual guilty party, well the narrator is able to zoom out to view the matter holistically, who the evil is, and who is a collaborator:
Yeah, we all dance to the same beat when we we're marching
Yeah, the TV tells us everything we need to know
And this scene is painting in all the fashions of the moment
And history is all the same
Everything you say you stole
Every dream you dream you bought
We're having curated for us consumable, palatable versions of world events that launder out, both, the material harm done to real humans in service of empire, as well as the reality of the events themselves; this preempts the total reality television aspect of mass corporate media, Twitter journalism personality cultivation, etc. by a few years, during the beginning of the next phase of corporate media's complicity in things like the Iraq War, not specifically, but something like it very much the new normal in terms of global hegemonic iconography ushered in by western imperialists since the 1990s. And what is the American public to do to stop it, if there seems to be so many willing to accept the curated consumable being sold here?
Another track from this record, "Paris in Flames", speaks to this tendency Adorno discusses, but likewise is meant to launder the materialism of Parenti's observation there there is a global exploiter and exploited, and great lengths are taken to obscure this by flattening the exploiter's citizens, experiencing poor material conditions and exploitation, into the state's extraction. This will be a pretense that the exploiter class will maintain until the total collapse of the metaphysics that justify the legitimacy of their governance:
Here in this collapsed lung of a borough
There is no sunlight
The sunlight is manufactured in a windowless room
Distant and incoherent
Businessmen hang themselves
The lower east side is a jukebox playing the deadman's crescendo
The needle is a vector
An intersection that we all must cross
A dimly lit hallway where shadows of moths decorate the walls
They'll maintain the appearance of structure and leadership, insisting the illusion of security is material and real and the dividends paid to the public for all the extraction; this is how a complacent uncritical public consuming news media as entertainment consumables will regard the state as legitimate while the material landscape demonstrates the reality.
The problem, some might argue, with this record is that it speaks to an abstract endgame where this is the end result of capitalism domestically, at the expense of total exhaustion of resources and liquidation of cultures and life abroad, is, as named, full collapse. While perhaps clear materially, culturally, the audience is, as the record suggests, buffered from the shared class interest against them, and the shared class interest they have abroad.
The urgency of the record is belied by the fact that what had become routine imperialist expansionism by the west in the new millennium was about to take a devastating and exponentially more deadly and overtly exploitative turn in the form of the Bush administration's foreign policy. We suddenly had a war that not only should we feel dutifully to fight in, but that we should support uncritically, because, well, "they" (who?) hate "our" (again, whose?) freedom. The "we" in this case is a public who less than ever is represented by the actions of our state, things done in our name against our interests, to a victimized target society, with whom we have more in common with than our shared exploiters.
Parenti's argument is not that we're all victims of this exploitation, period, and therefore not at all culpable or benefitting, but that imperialism and exploitation thrives on flattening benefitting/not or culpable/not into whether or not a citizen can be flattened into identification with its state. Once again, viewed materially through Parenti, for example, the material conditions of citizens, exploited to some degree, should be solidarity building with those who were exploited almost totally in their name, rather than with the state that did the exploiting.
In the time between Full Collapse and their next record, War All the Time, Bush-era foreign policy had become fully realized as the new hegemonic reality, with a bipartisan power elite cheering on the various expressions of imperialism by the US state, but primarily what had already been termed a forever war, the invasion of Iraq where young Americans were being called to service for why, by then, was not only known to be based on a lie, but one the media was complicit in. We're told we have a free and objective media, but the evidence is always mounting that it is not. Something Parenti calls "inventing reality"– you're effectively always, as someone critical of capitalism and imperialism, arguing against the least reflective version of material reality if you're forced to accept the media narrative as factual and having positive truth value. You're always under the heat and light manufactured out of "a windowless room" rather than seeing the sun for yourself.
This is the backdrop for the record. "For the Workforce, Drowning", the narrator laments erosion of working class solidarity, everyone has to fight for their lives all the time, and while the obvious answer is not to let anyone drown, we're forced into a position where you often must (or at least are taught that they must) let someone drown, at minimum, for you to compete in artificial scarcity in the imperial core. In "Signals Over the Air", this alienation of labor as being corrosive to the common citizen is expanded upon:
Is this how it feels
When you don't even fit into your own skin?
And its getting tighter
Every day I'm getting smaller
If I keep holding my breath I'm going to disappear
You're made to feel subhuman, you're alienated not only from your value as a worker, but become unrecognizable to yourself as a human, and for all the talk of personal responsibility, individual enterprise, you're always a blip on the radar of the exploiter-class, a data point, and rather than seeing yourself as part of a unified underclass, you're made to feel that if you disappear from that radar, you might as well not exist, so you work harder, longer, for less and, as Parenti suggest, for the benefit of those who will exploit others using your extracted labor.
In Against Empire, Parenti says:
“The essence of capitalism is to turn nature into commodities and commodities into capital. The live green earth is transformed into dead gold bricks, with luxury items for the few and toxic slag heaps for the many. The glittering mansion overlooks a vast sprawl of shanty towns, wherein a desperate, demoralized humanity is kept in line with drugs, television, and armed force.”
This concept is central to understanding this record. Where these ideas come together, the cosmic injustice of imperialism writ large and the personalized, contemporaneous struggle narrative of this record, is in the titular track, "War All the Time". The track begins with a generational suicidal ideation; that the future holds nothing but tremendous global class struggle under the fog of what is going to be a permanent state of war, and that you are tumblr towards an end that would rather see everyone go than sacrifice all that imperialism has done for the capitalist class in the modern West ("If the sun doesn't rise / We'll replace it with an H-bomb explosion"), and confronts the ultimate lie of not only a generation, the last before 9/11, but of the foundational nature of the mythology of the United States:
War all of the time
In the shadow of the New York skyline
We grew up too fast, falling apart
Like the ashes of American flags
The pieces fall it’s like a last day parade
And the fires in our streets start to rage
So wave to those people who long to wave back
From the fabric of a flag that sang "love all of the time"
Before this point, there was never a loving, caring United States that fought for world peace, but it becomes undeniable reality in the last half of the 20th century, and hyper accelerates with the success of operations to purge as many elements of global socialism as possible while exploiting these newly "liberated" capitalist citizens as much as possible, and perhaps seen from the vantage point of this track, which at the time whose music video was suppressed, it was preempting what was to come in places like Libya, where the United States State Department was instrumental in the return of open air slave markets, ongoing billions to Israel and Ukraine, arming and funding neo-fascist organizations (something Parenti has noted has always been the go-to NATO method of organizing an insurgency against its ideological enemies since the end of WWII, prominently so in arming a Nazi insurgency in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s), and ushering in not only a new Cold War, but an overt effort to force another cataclysmic global conflict.
Perhaps ahead of its time, the band released a track between these two albums that while being about the band's personality conflicts, and intending to be their final work together, "Jet Black New Year", that I think sums up the potential for this future being obvious as far back as the turn of the millennium. It's a track that takes place on the day of armageddon; people are frantic and desperate and put into an unforced survival scenario that will test collectivized incentive ("Seven windows, and six of them are locked") and leave individuals, unorganized, nowhere else to go or face extinction with everyone else ("Five stories falling"). The track describes the media reassurance as "a newspaper tragedy", a narrative construction, not truthful challenges to power, to mollify a panicked public, and this is something the opening lines leads in with, so you are sure not to misunderstand the condition you are facing at the end of the West:
Don't even take a breath
The air is cut with cyanide
In honor of the new year
The press gives us cause to celebrate:
These air raid sirens
Flood barbed-wired skylines
By artificial night
As we sleep to burn the red
From our bloodless lives
Tonight we're all time bombs
On fault lines
It's a very powerful track, and taps into the frustration of Full Collapse to a new level of intensity, but it failed to connect in a contemporary socially obvious way, how this is reflective of your immediate task ahead of you as an anti-imperialist. This is why the second record was necessary, to create those connective fibers between yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment says: “There is only one expression for truth: the thought which repudiates injustice. If insistence on the good sides of life is not sublated in the negative whole, it transfigures its own opposite: violence.”– art like this is self-evidently required in the absence of much else reflecting the core of the issue, that this is a cruel and habitually violent and exploitative system and the divisions are not the ones perpetuated by mass media culture, that which "consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them" as Adorno puts it.
War All the Time ends with "Tomorrow I'll Be You", not specifically politicized (as much of the record carries personal, as well as political, context), but speaks to a high level of interpersonal influence between people, and there are moments (New Years' Day being a big one for the band in general as metaphor) that collectivized incentive is a source of mass social joy, for revelation, for solidarity, and it's anodyne in many ways, and inoculates you in some way between points where the friction might prove incendiary, but it's a cure for individuals, and an imperative socially in our ability to so fully identify with someone else, and hopefully not before it's too late:
I'm calling from your house
In your room
In your name
Lying in your bed
Following your dreams
I listen to your voice
Get caught in my throat
As I sing
"This is just a dream"
On New Year's Day
We will change back to ourselves
In the flame
We are cured
We are cured
We are cured
Parenti has said, “You will have no sensation of a leash around your neck if you sit by the peg. It is only when you stray that you feel the restraining tug" and that “People who think they're free in this world just haven't come to the end of their leash yet.”– most suffering in the modern world, domestically or abroad, fundamentally comes down to whether or not you find yourself on the lower half of the global imperialist division for or against their interests, and that the awareness of where you sit comes from challenging what is put in front of you, and sometimes that has to be a conscious decision as it increasingly is no longer needing to be (as this awareness is inevitable as oppressed class exploitation increases, becomes more blatant even in the society of the conquerers) , but just as often as simply existing in a place the United States has decided must have its agency managed for them.
Per Parenti, "As in Rome of old and in every empire since, the center is bled in order to fortify the periphery. The lives and treasure of the people are squandered so that patricians might pursue their far- off plunder."