Holocaust thinking in America III:
In the here and now
By Marc Estrin / The Rag Blog / October 11, 2010
[Part three of three. To read the entire series, go here.]
The end of last week’s essay: “Just in case there were any legislative objection to these judicial proceedings, Hitler pushed through the ‘Enabling Act’ which allowed his handpicked cabinet to make laws having the same validity as any passed by the Reichstag, even ones disregarding the Constitution. The circle was closed, complete and tight. The living dead would soon become the dead — period.”
Laws are being made here, too. And Presidential Enabling Acts, aka “signing statements.” And court seats being filled.
The cast of characters is somewhat changed. Instead of Jews, we have the poor and soon-to-be-poor, the homeless, the disabled, the aged, the immigrant “Other” — an open-ended, potentially unruly, group, getting larger with each job loss and foreclosure.
We have no Nazis, only Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Both parties agree that the foremost task is to eliminate the deficit, and both agree that the main hit will be on services to the poor, without tapping the military budget or corporate welfare. Both agree that taxes for the most part need to be cut — it’s good for getting re-elected.
Asses and Pachyderms (from Gr: “thickskinned”) may argue over numbers or priorities, but the fundamental assumptions — and the potential victims — are precisely the same. And outside the beltway is a population of Good Americans, voting their pocketbooks, not paying much attention to details evolving inside. How could they? All they know is what the government- and corporate-controlled media choose to tell them.
All the propensities of the Authoritarian Personality are still at large in this social consciousness, along with the tendency to behave as Milgram’s subjects did with respect to “legitimately constituted” authority. Weber’s analysis accurately describes what is going on today: bureaucracy, science, efficiency, and value-free thought running the show in the interest of “Progress” and “Freedom and Democracy” — and maximization of profit.
Social forces and individual thought habits are distressingly similar to those in Nazi Germany. The poor and the “Others” are as despised as were the Jews. Helping them is as verboten. There are no cultural safeguards in place which would prevent a holocaust-like social cannibalism, a society-wide suspension of morality with regard to the designated “problem.”
There would be no help on a global level, either, since every national state claims the right to dispose of its citizens as it will, starving them, imprisoning them, executing them as it finds necessary. The United States refuses to recognize judgments of the World Court except when such judgments suit its purposes, and refuses to ratify several international treaties concerning human rights.
International objectors like Amnesty International are delegitimized as “interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign nations.” The legitimacy of national sovereignty is built into the United Nations. Besides, who would take on the United States, militarily or economically for any mere human rights issue?
Thus, all the pieces are in place for another holocaust — this time against the poor and “Other.” Native racism adds to the potential, since — no surprise — many of the poor are immigrants and people of color, and code words overlap: “End welfare as we know it” = “Get the minorities under control.” Hence the ominous double significance of our move toward prison expansion. The U.S. already has a far greater percentage of its population behind bars than any other industrial country — the highest in the world. The vast preponderance of prisoners are poor people of color.
A comparative check on where we are now in the six historical steps above is sobering — and frightening.
Step 1. Defining the enemy. The poor are clearly defined as “the problem.” Not the profit-driven economy. Not the culture of violence. Not the controlled information system. Studies focus on the pathology of the “underclass.” The Poor are the problem. They are “other” to “normal Americans.” Consequently they must to be “dealt with.” Highest priority : “excess” population, a drain on the nation, unviable.
Step 2. Eliminating the enemy from the economy. By national policy, there are fewer and fewer jobs available to the poor, and fewer and fewer salaries that could raise a family out of poverty. Wall Street is bailed out, while money for public sector employment is denied, and corporate profits recover, with CEOs reaping massive benefits at taxpayer expense. Education funding is similarly squelched, so that the problem army of the poor can only swell. “Otherness” is increased as the media focus in on the predictably rising problems of crime, the inner city, and immigrant workers, ignoring problems elsewhere, and their root causes.
Step 3. Ostracism by custom and law. It is frightening to make such a list, but almost every step taken by the Third Reich has some parallel here and now — with no built-in limits:
- Laws passed by Congress can be overridden by executive orders, presidential “findings,” National Security directives, or simply aborted by not disbursing committed funds.
- Courts are routinely packed with obedient federal appointees. The current composition of the Supreme Court is the biggest scandal of all. Legal rights of poor defendants are being systematically reduced, and money for good lawyers diminished.
- The current push in Congress is for law to serve the state and its rich financiers at the expense of individuals. Corporate personhood triumphs. Eavesdropping technology and “anti-terrorism” stand guard at the gates. The government moves to limit consumer and environmental protection. These laws are being made deliberately, without even pretending to be a democratic response to the will of the people. There is increasing governmental readiness to evade constitutional law
- The many Nazi restrictions on employment are all replaced by the fact that — for the poor and uneducated above all — there are simply no jobs. Affirmative action is increasingly questioned. The situation has worsened catastrophically with jobs exported and capital flight, and its attendant dog-eat-dog resentments. With no money for private transportation, no money for parking, and increasingly expensive, inadequate public transportation, the poor are deprived of the mobility necessary to find and maintain employment — even if there were employment to be had.
- Municipal services are neglected or abandoned in poor neighborhoods, and the police remain an occupying army, protecting and serving the threatened rich. Consequently, living conditions and ghettos become ever more intolerable.
- Student loans are being cut at the same time that tuitions are skyrocketing. Thus education increasingly excludes the poor as effectively as discriminatory laws did the Jews. Without an educated workforce, the vicious spiral continues downward.
- “Economics of scale” are driving out smaller, local businesses in favor of large corporate operations — if they even choose to locate in poorer neighborhoods.
Remember: such policies are not accidents. They are designed and signed by upper-class men and women, and approved by well-prepped voters.
Step 4. Removal from view. In addition to long-existing ghettoization, foreclosures on housing toxically mortgaged, and increasing inter-racial suspicion, many municipalities are now enacting draconian laws to “get the poor out from under our noses.” Sleeping in public spaces, panhandling, even accepting free food have been criminalized.
Here in Burlington, Vermont, an ordinance was floated to make it illegal to sit in a street, or even lean against a building. When there are no more poor on the streets or in the subways, how will we know when there are no more poor at all? As the plight of the poor is made ever more intolerable, radical solutions become ever more thinkable.
Steps 5 and 6 — Slave labor and death camps have not yet been literally established. Nevertheless there is recognizable social movement in that direction. Prisons are currently the greatest growth industry, and there is increasing practice of substituting prison labor for outside workers — at substantially smaller wages. As a co-worker once said to me, “Why should I support those criminals? Let ‘em earn their keep.” (She would also kill everyone on death row right away, so that her taxes wouldn’t be used to support murderers.)
Great for profits, terrible for labor, further incentive to put as many people behind bars as possible. And the attachment to capital punishment continues. Less legal protection for prisoners, less chance for appeal, more designated-capital crimes, destruction of habeus corpus and Miranda protections in the name of “fighting terrorism”; micro-fascism at the airport, greater surveillance, and now Obama giving himself permission to assassinate Americans without trial — all to general public approval.
Given the above array of conditions, what can we surmise about the likely American future?
Holocaust thinking in America
There is a scent of pre-holocaust in the air. It is a mood, a direction faced, a lingo, haze of assumptions. And look! — there is a Jack-in-the-box with a box’s six sides: authoritarianism, consumo-conformity, efficiency, moralism, patriotism, and a penchant for punishment.
Turn the crank:
All around the mulberry bush
the monkey chased the weasel,
the monkey thought ‘twas all in fun…
Now just hold it there. What will pop out at the very next move?
We don’t really know. The mind rebels. Tens of millions of children in poverty experiencing a “greater sense of personal responsibility”? Welfare cut-offs flooding an already non-existent job market getting people “back to work”? Or giving them back their “self-esteem”?
There is discontinuity in the curve of thought here — except for one constant — it is definitively the poor and “Other” that are poised to fall off the line into god-knows-what abyss. And the numbers of those impoverished are growing as the middle class shrinks away into unknown territory.
The number of officially poor is now over 45 million, higher than at any time in the 51 years of counting. 2009 saw the largest increase ever. The most vulnerable families are those headed by single mothers, and among them the hardest hit are those headed by single women of color. Two-thirds are employed.
But in addition to chronic low wages, many single mothers have seen their work hours cut in the recession. The number of Americans on food stamps is at an all time high, and the Republicans want to cut into those food stamps in order to “fund childhood nutrition.”
One out of every seven mortgages is delinquent or in foreclosure, 10 million Americans are on unemployment, more than half of them in long-term joblessness. Bankruptcy filings have risen 20% in the last year. One out of every five children lives in poverty.
Even though there are six people applying for every available job, the new “welfare as we now know it” (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) insists that one has to find a job in order to continue benefits. So since there are no jobs, TANF is eliminating benefits for 85,000 families a month, even as the destitute swamp welfare offices, having exhausted all other options. Obama wants his administration to “break the cycle of dependency,” dontcha know.
Where have the jobs gone, the money? The current income gap is the largest its been since the late 1920s, the result of a long series of policy decisions by legislators bought and paid for by the high-class bandits making out. The race to the bottom is fueled by a race to the top. The dynamics seem irreversible.
The assault on America is a bipartisan operation. Whatever their deceitful rhetoric, neither party is willing to place serious limits on corporate speculation and profitability. Neither will question the need for public austerity and private profit, nor the enormous damage done by the military industrial complex.
The Republican’s current “Pledge to America” is most importantly a call to continue the Bush tax cuts for the rich to maintain the income gap and protect its well-heeled beneficiaries. Secondarily, it is a plan to repeal even the pathetic Affordable Health Care Act, itself written by lobbyists from insurance and pharmaceutical companies.
Even while in the minority, the Republicans have blocked benefits for homeless vets, health care for 911 first responders, a jobs bill that gives tax breaks to companies hiring new employees, an act to ensure women are paid the same wages as men, have tried to block unemployment benefits extension, and have succeeded in blocking stricter regulations for financial institutions. Their ultimate goal, often stated, is privatization of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The Democrats have put up no fight in the interest of “compromise.” Is there a pattern here?
Such an immiseration project must be protected by spreading fear of “terrorism,” and the use of illegal spying now openly practiced, with sweeping new regulations for the internet. Robert Mueller, director of the FBI has stated that, “There is a continuum between those who would express dissent and those who would do a terrorist act.” One spokesperson from an FBI/police “information fusion center” claimed that the protest of a war against “international terrorism” is itself “a terrorist act.”
The USAPATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism — first prize for acronyms) stands behind him. And for good measure, Obama has come up with approved “kill lists” of suspected terrorists — including Americans — he claims he can exterminate with impunity. The final solution, no doubt.
Holocaust and totalitarianism
Many of the classic structures of a totalitarian state are already in place in contemporary America, Land of the Free. Many new ones, too — modern and post-modern. Official lawlessness no longer bothers to hide itself, and is tolerated or approved by the population at large. Criminal investigations into state crimes are blocked in the interests of “national security.” Checks and balances among the three branches of government have been manipulated into a seamless, self-validifying whole. Make that four, as the media becomes ever more embedded in the corporate beltway.
But while totalitarianism is almost certainly a necessary context for holocaust, genocide, nakba, shoah, it is not a sufficient condition: the cooperation of the population is necessary. And that is where the Milgram Experiments come in (see part one of this essay ). When the authorities say “do it!” — a population of authoritarian personalities, born and bred, will do it.
American murder, massive and limited, even if openly criminal, seems to have widespread support by a swamped population, ready to lash out at designated victims. Americans know about torture of detainees in hidden prisons. They know of American slaughter in Iraq and Afghanistan, even if they are only discovering such activities in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and well-supported in Palestine. Hey, freedom isn’t free.
They know, too, about the slave labor of prisoners, and of undocumented workers, frightened and hiding. Let the torture, war, and racist attacks proceed, I guess, if USA is once again to be Number One. Gott mit uns!
Should some object, they, like Germans in the Thirties, will find no levers of change in their much-vaunted political process, all of whose candidates stand behind the American project of victory, “democracy,” and control of resources. As Jay Gould said back in the 1880’s, “I don’t care who they vote for as long as I get to pick the candidates.”
And those candidates are — with notable exceptions — no dummies. They can see as clearly as anyone the general direction in which we are headed. Why else reduce or remove the safety net for Americans while pouring trillions into armaments, corporations, and banks? A group — the poor and Other — has been identified as the problem and the need for a “solution” given highest priority — Step 1, above.
Now we are poised at the edge of the precipice. “Terrorism” and its attendant and well-tended-to fear, make Step 2 certain: they virtually guarantee that most people will not be able to make the transition into productive work. They further assure galloping immiseration of the poor as they are cut off from food and cash assistance, childcare, and nutrition for their children. The consequent desperation will require more policing, desperate, more “final” and effective solutions, solutions which can ensure that the misery of the poor does not inflict itself on the top 10%.
Steps 1 and 2 have been taken. Steps 3 and 4 are underway. The smell of holocaust is in the air. Our civilization provides no safeguards. The Zweckrationalität dynamic described by Max Weber — the very one that nourished the Jewish holocaust in a most civilized, advanced-industrial Germany — still rules. Is it realistic to say “It can’t happen here”?
We have the Jewish holocaust behind us, and the words “Never Again” engraved in our collective heartminds. But our own history — previous and subsequent to the holocaust is not reassuring. Native Americans were wiped out to make room for middle America. “Pioneers” were rewarded by the government with land deeds for expropriating Native American territory and violating treaties. It is not necessary to go over the “social suspension of morality” with respect to African Americans, or the atrocities committed during the Civil War.
In our own time, we have seen World War II with its mass firebombings and atomic attacks, then two more wars, wiping out gooks with high-tech weapons. They don’t value life like we do. Just to keep our hands in it, we buried Iraquis alive and incinerated fleeing columns of troops with gas-air explosives. And now our middle-east atrocities. I don’t have much faith in home-grown American morality resisting commands to solve a problem by slaughter.
Richard Miller notes that
Most Germans did not believe the final steps would be taken. They saw each measure as a discrete event and failed to understand that each step prepared the way for the next. The SS journal Das Schwarze Korps noted in 1938, “What is radical today is moderate tomorrow.” In 1933 the Nazis had no plan to kill all the Jews, and even militants would have shrunk in horror from such a suggestion.
Gradually, over the next decade, “reasonable people” found that they had to become a little harsher. By 1943, the context of the war against Jews had escalated to the point where warriors could blandly pass bureaucratic memos back and forth about behavior that would have seemed unconscionable in 1933. “ (Nazi Justiz, p.3)
Our leaders are now passing such notes, and setting in place such laws concerning our current “Others.” Proposals are being negotiated which would have horrified officials of earlier administrations. This is our 1943. Will we allow a similar denouement? It can happen here.
[Marc Estrin is a writer and activist, living in Burlington, Vermont. His novels, Insect Dreams, The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, The Education of Arnold Hitler, Golem Song, and The Lamentations of Julius Marantz have won critical acclaim. His memoir, Rehearsing With Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theater (with Ron Simon, photographer) won a 2004 theater book of the year award. He is currently working on a novel about the dead Tchaikovsky.]
- Marc Estrin : Holocaust Thinking in America I: The Authoritarian Personality / The Rag Blog / September 30, 2010
- Marc Estrin : Holocaust Thinking in America II: How the Nazis Did It / The Rag Blog / October 5, 2010
These three excellent essays should spark a serious national discussion. Many of the structures of the totalitarian state are in place, and the judiciary, with greater frequency, has interfered with the political process and also subordinated itself to the national security state.
We can expect the Feds to keep a close eye on dissenters and sometimes harass them.
Beyond that, it is not in the interest of the national security state and Big Money to impose more restraints. The illusion of democracy is a useful diplomatic tool, and it also inspires young men to fight our foreign wars.
The current madness on the political scene illustrtes how easy it is to manipulate the masses.
Things will get a lot worse for the poor and marginalized, but they will continue to get just enough benefits to keep them passive.
As far as I can tell, every trick in the bag of political psychology is being deployed right now. One has to marvel at how well the Right’s plans are going.
Why bring out the big guns now?
Maybe the health reform constitutes a serious threat to
continued benefits for the rich and military?
In the October 11, 2010, Newsweek, there is the first effort at using behavioral knowledge to analyze what is going on. Sharon Begley, the author, does not suggest anyone is using experetise to manipulate things.
I’m inclined to think otherwise. The time has come to consider the possibility.
There are other commentaries that lay out shifts toward authoritarianism, These are not new in the U.S., going as far back as The Iron Heel by Jack London. From the 1980s there is Friendly Fascism by Bertram Gross, and the much more recent Democracy Inc. by Sheldon Wolin.
If we were plotting the rise of authoritarianism on the calendar, we'd still be in the 1930s, not 1943. By