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Resisting Illegitimate Autbority


Edward S. Herman

My feeling

that the government in Washington represents illegitimate authority ebbs and

flows, but it has gathered strength over the past few years, and even months.

One reason is the blatant further dollarization of the electoral process, with

Bush having raised over $37 million, Gore and Bradley each having lined up

substantial Wall Street and Silicon Valley contributors and jousting for more,

and candidates who fail to sell themselves to large monied interests dropping

out of the competition. The law of the market–"them that pays gits"–clearly

and blatantly rules politics. This is plutocracy, not democracy, and

trickle-down politics produces trickle-down economic policy, plus other nasties.

A second

reason for my strong sense of alienation–and one of the nasties–is the

multiple bombings and blatant aggressiveness of the U.S. national security

state. The last time the U.S. left issued a "Call to Resist Illegitimate

Authority" was during the Vietnam War, when the security state was

devastating a distant peasant society. Well, for several months in 1999 the

security state was leveling one country while intermittently bombing and

continuously sanctioning and starving another into submission, after having

bombed two other countries in 1998. Without any external force to contain it,

the security state, having armed itself to the teeth, threatens and attacks

anybody getting out of line, and IT defines the line–which is completely

self-serving and devoid of moral force or legality (see Chomsky’s forthcoming

The New Military Humanism: Lessons From Kosovo [Common Courage], chaps. 2, 6-7).

A third

reason is anger at the ruling elite’s treatment of the poor and other

unimportant people and its associated budget priorities. The Personal

Responsibility Act of 1996 (in non- Orwellian: The Government Irresponsibility

Act of 1996), ending the federal government’s commitment to protect the poor,

was an act of savagery, pushing large numbers into the market (and street)

without any parallel policies of job training, child and health care, and job

provision. This took place in a society where the rich are prospering mightily,

helped by a massive restructuring of taxes and expenditures to their benefit

carried out by plutocratic authorities. Business Week of August 2 reports

"staggering" business profits and business "swimming in

cash," with "a record $861 billion in retained earnings on their

books." But these folks have no cash to spare, and as progressive CEO

Michele McGeoy says, congress is "worried that I’m not rich enough,"

so that the plutocratic agents strive to give her more. With prospective budget

surpluses which, as McGeoy says, are "largely the product of past and

future cutbacks on everything from Medicare to bridge repair," the

plutocratic right is pressing for regressive tax cuts, whereas the plutocratic

"left" (Clinton) proposes pumping up Medicare and reducing the

national debt. The well-being of the poor and non- elite non-poor, and even the

environment and infrastructure, are of little concern to the ruling elite.

The public

has a different take on help to the poor and investment in the environment and

infrastructure. For the past several decades polls have shown that the general

public tends to support populist policies and oppose deregulation, mergers,

militarism, and free market trade policies. Recent polls show that only 5

percent of the public name tax reduction as top priority, far below education,

health care, Social Security, and other matters; and while the plutocrats

arrange for tax reductions favoring the elite, 66 percent of the public believes

"upper-income people" already pay too little. Political scientist Ben

Page has pointed out that there are major "elite-mass gaps," with

"ordinary citizens…considerably less enthusiastic than foreign policy

elites about the use of force abroad, about economic or (especially) military

aid or arms sales, and about free-trade agreements. The average American is much

more concerned than foreign policy elites about jobs and income at home."

Page also notes that "the problem for public deliberation is most severe

when officials of both parties and most mainstream media take positions that are

similar to each other and opposed to the public" (Who Deliberates?

[University of Chicago: 1996], pp. 118-9).

In his

book Golden Rule, political scientist Thomas Ferguson argues that "on all

issues affecting the vital interests that major investors have in common, no

party competition will take place. Instead, all that will occur will be a

proliferation of marginal appeals to voters–and if all the major investors

happen to share an interest in ignoring issues vital to the electorate, such as

social welfare, hours of work, or collective bargaining, so much the worse for

the electorate" (28). He also contends that the major media,

"controlled by large profit-maximizing investors do not encourage the

dissemination of news and analyses that are likely to lead to popular

indignation and, perhaps, government action hostile to the interests of all

large investors, themselves included" (400).

So the

system is working beautifully, for a small elite, with the government integrated

into the market and refusing to compete to serve ordinary citizens, the

corporate media doing the same, and these elite interests yielding harsh

policies toward the poor, neglect of the non-elite non-poor, and an aggressive

and murderous militarism.

How are we

to resist such a powerful and smoothly running power structure? A major problem

is that "we"–a democratic left–are weak, fragmented, and not well

coordinated with our natural allies who are also weak (labor, civil rights and

environmental groups, among others). The great bulk of the population does not

consider the government illegitimate, even those who are discriminated against,

marginalized, and don’t vote. The system of hegemony causes most of them to

blame themselves for failure and/or to be unable to imagine alternatives worth

working toward. Our task is to win them over, shift the onus of failure from the

victims to the victimizers, and offer them credible alternatives.

But our

weakness makes it difficult for us to reach our natural allies with messages.

And we also suffer from the fact that, although we can show well how the system

damages ordinary citizens, we disagree on solutions: those that are truly

democratic and with far-reaching effects have a utopian quality that make them

hard to agree on and offer as a basis for work and sacrifice. And those that are

practical require working within the system and by definition have limited

benefits.

One

traditional left response is to refuse to cooperate with illegitimate authority.

This can run the gamut from nonvoting and other forms of opting out, to refusals

to pay taxes and other acts of civil disobedience. These can be moral acts based

on moral principles, but taken by themselves and in isolation they can be acts

of self-righteousness and pride. As Santayana put it, "a way foolishness

has of revenging itself is to excommunicate the world." One can make a case

that to be socially effective in a large and complex society acts must have

social content and be communicated to and coordinated with the acts of others.

There is

no easy way. In the 1960s resistance to illegitimate authority became formidable

because social movements like the civil rights movement had invigorated large

numbers and made them feel that change is possible, and the huge immorality of

the Vietnam War and threat of the draft had a catalyzing effect. There are huge

provocations and immoralities in security state and anti-populist policies

today, but so far public anger and willingness to organize and act have been

modest (although underrated by the corporate media). The only plausible routes

at the moment are staying informed, informing others, and organizing resistance

at all levels. _

 

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