Economic anthropologist David Graeber was one of the early participants in Occupy Wall Street. He wrote an interesting article in the current issue of The Baffler in which he argued that the power of the political and economic elite is based on their ability to convince the rest of us that there is no alternative to the status quo. He said that is why they have such fear of dissent and protest.
One often hears that antiwar protests in the late sixties and early seventies were ultimately failures, since they did not appreciably speed up the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina. But afterward, those controlling U.S. foreign policy were so anxious about being met with similar popular unrest—and even more, with unrest within the military itself, which was genuinely falling apart by the early seventies—that they refused to commit U.S. forces to any major ground conflict for almost thirty years.
It took 9/11, an attack that led to thousands of civilian deaths on U.S. soil, to fully overcome the notorious “Vietnam syndrome”—and even then, the war planners made an almost obsessive effort to ensure the wars were effectively protest-proof. Propaganda was incessant, the media was brought on board, experts provided exact calculations on body bag counts (how many U.S. casualties it would take to stir mass opposition), and the rules of engagement were carefully written to keep the count below that.
The problem was that since those rules of engagement ensured that thousands of women, children, and old people would end up “collateral damage” in order to minimize deaths and injuries to U.S. soldiers, this meant that in Iraq and Afghanistan, intense hatred for the occupying forces would pretty much guarantee that the United States couldn’t obtain its military objectives.
And remarkably, the war planners seemed to be aware of this. It didn’t matter. They considered it far more important to prevent effective opposition at home than to actually win the war. It’s as if American forces in Iraq were ultimately defeated by the ghost of Abbie Hoffman.
I think this is true. The reason the United States government is moving heaven and earth to capture Julian Assange and punish Bradley Manning is the fear of letting the American public know what the government really is doing. Fear is the reason for the massive police response to the Occupy movement and to protests generally is so out of proportion to what is actually being done.
Urban police departments have military equipment and are encouraged to use military tactics, as if they were an occupation force in a hostile foreign country. It is as if the powers that be are preparing to suppress an uprising among the citizenry.
The United States government has, for more than 30 years, been dismantling government regulation of corporations and Wall Street banks, dismantling the social safety net and reducing taxes on rich people, with the promise of economic growth and prosperity for all, and that this promise has not been fulfilled. It also is true that the optimism and hope for a better future, which has characterized American life since before the United States was an independent nation, is vanishing. And historically, disappointed hopes were what inspired revolutions. So it is no wonder that the elite are fearful.
Click on A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse for Graeber’s complete article, which is well worth reading in full. The article was taken from Graeber’s new book, The Democracy Project (which I haven’t read). Click on A Kaleidoscopic Sense of Possibility for Graeber’s discussion of the book with Lynn Parramore of Alternet.