The Humanitarian Face of the State, With Fangs

The glorious Barack Obama, broad-minded humanitarian universalist that he is, promised to reverse the wickedness of the Bush administration, which ran a prison camp in Guantánamo Bay and kept pictures of ruthless abuse from public view to save the face of Bush.

Bush the despot!

Obama the savior!

And sure enough, after taking office, Obama did something or other toward closing that prison camp just off our shores, along with its secret military trials and abuse. How the partisans cheered on one side and booed on the other.

Except that just the other day, Obama quietly reversed himself. Now the camps must stay. After all, there are real enemies there, the “worst of the worst.” The trials will still be in secret. The military will still run them, because, you know, you just can’t trust those civilian courts to arrive at the right verdict.

As for those pictures of abuse, Obama can’t allow those to be seen. What were they thinking? Why, for our Islamic enemies to have access to those will only give them a weapon to whip up their countries in some sort of anti-U.S. frenzy.

Is the idea that if we do not release those pictures that the Islamic world will come to believe that the prisoners in Guantánamo and other venues are treated decently, with three square meals per day, awaiting trial by jury?

Clearly the reason for blocking the photos is not to embarrass the U.S. state with its own people. No surprise here: the state’s interest is mainly in protecting itself. That’s why it does what it does.

Of course the Republicans played their appointed role as guardians of the torture power and celebrated when Obama reversed his previous position and his campaign promise. Finally he is taking his responsibility as head of state.

But how is it possible that the great humanitarian universalist reversed himself at all, even against his own promises and even to the point that the ACLU is protesting?

Well, it is all about thinking like the state. It took his administration a bit to get the hang of it in international affairs but it was just a matter of applying the logic of his domestic program, which is all-controlling.

Think of it this way. Even if Obama wanted to be another way, wanted to bring a new sense of things to government, it is not difficult to slip into the role of a despot. That is, after all, the job he campaigned for years to get and the job he now holds.

Think of it this way. Let’s say you are a health geek who is dedicated to the proposition that Americans eat too much junk food. But then you are hired as the manager of the local doughnut shop. Your first day on the job you issue mild warnings to customers that they should go easy on the double-dozen purchases.

Everyone around you thinks you are out of your mind. It only takes a few days to realize that you are in fact crazy to talk this way. The more doughnuts people buy, the better off you are and the better off your employees are. You are working against your own success by promoting other forms of eating.

Of course you change your tune!

And would that the state were like a doughnut shop. As Butler Shaffer points out in his new book Boundaries of Order — which argues that the state is unviable in our times — “every political system is nothing more than a mechanism that allows some to benefit at the expense of the many through violent takings of property…. Politics is unthinkable without property trespasses and takings.”

This is why “there are no fundamental differences among major political parties: at their core, each embraces the authority of the state to regulate how property will be owned and used.”

The state is driven by its own internal interests, which can only be fulfilled at the expense of society. The state operates according to the principle of violence. Violence is the ultimate bargaining tool of the state. This is true in domestic and foreign relations, whether running a health program or a prison camp.

It is particularly telling that Obama cited the grave threat that these poor slobs — who are in Guantánamo because they dared fight against the interests of the Holy American Empire — represent to all of us. As Shaffer writes, “Because of our willingness to huddle at the feet of political officials whenever we feel ourselves threatened, the state will feed us an endless supply of fear-objects with which to assure our continuing submission. This is why the well-being of the state is dependent upon the war system.”

This is how I can predict only muted protests from the left concerning Obama’s betrayal. So long as he continues to expand the state in the domestic area — inflating, taxing, regulating, nationalizing — they will put up with abuses of the human rights that they claim to champion.

Guantánamo is a metaphor. How those prisoners are treated is a mere foreshadowing of how we will all be treated under the total state.

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