A Review of “State Power and Democracy”

 Paresh Chandra  

Andrew Kolin, State Power and Democracy: Before and During the Presidency of George W. Bush, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010

It is not hard to find texts that defy the lies of the state by presenting facts that contradict them. This method of ‘uncovering’ the status quo, which can be called Chomskyan (the political Chomsky, not the linguistic one), works by trying to shock its reader out of their ideological slumber. Unfortunately, the vast array of ugly facts that these texts bring out usually remains ungrounded in a unified, alternative perception of reality. The attempt is to falsify particular claims of the state, by producing facts to the contrary, without trying to understand the ‘deep structure’ that gives birth to this state of affairs. The reader, not drawn out into a critique of present-day life in its entirety, is able to go back to that life, as if what these books uncover is simply another aspect of reality that s/he need not be concerned with.

The first noticeable merit of Andrew Kolin’s book is that it is able to avoid this Chomskyan pitfall. The main thesis – that the American police state that came toAndrew Kolin's State Power and Democracy full bloom during the Bush regime was the culmination of a history of suppression of democracy – is buttressed by a very detailed account of steps that successive governments took in this direction. A diachronic account invariably suggests causal relations, and the writer in question does not feel the need to shy away from these suggestions. Kolin’s analysis shows that the move toward a police state was a possibility immanent within the American system, and if it did not become a solid, unquestioned presence till now, it was only because of successive people’s movements that broke its advance. The emergence of the ‘military-industrial complex’ during and after World War II on the one hand, and the institution of intelligence bodies like the FBI and CIA on the other, were major steps in the making of a police state. Kolin demonstrates how these bodies worked together, repeatedly sidelining the Congress, to hinder the rights of citizens and foreigners (inside and outside the American border). Even as they played a crucial role in militaristic/expansionistic drives, they also ensured that opposition within the borders of the nation, to the state’s foreign policy, is minimised.

The American state has managed to ensure a permanent state of emergency, declared or undeclared, within its borders. This emergency is based, customarily, on the fear of external threats (till a point communism and later on terrorism). The state of emergency implies that the President has unquestioned primacy over the Congress, that the Intelligence has a free hand, and that democratic rights of citizens are effectively and indefinitely suspended. Any person or organisation that dared to question foreign policy was arbitrarily connected to foreign threats (present or absent) and was hence liable to be prosecuted. Laws like the Patriot Act ensured that ‘suspicion’ was good enough ground to ‘neutralise’ a person.

From the beginning of the 20th century, and especially after WW-II, the US has been the single-most powerful imperialist entity in world politics. “Empires are incompatible with democracy, which has been seen throughout human history. To maintain and expand power, an empire must limit dissent, rolling back democracy; only mass democracy could challenge the authoritarian polices of the US government.” (131) To defend its power and policies the US has had to stay on an offensive not only in territories it has ‘conquered’, but also inside its own borders, where dissent has emerged time and again. Sometimes the combination of aggression abroad and defence within its borders has proved too much, and the outcome has often been visible. For instance, one practical implication of continuous war in Vietnam was that the state was not in a position to control, properly, rising discontent inside its borders. More generally, however, a logical continuum can be traced, on the one hand between the aggression that is perpetrated outside and inside the nation’s border, and on the other the resistance that it has to face on both ‘fronts’.

The foregrounding of this two-faced ‘continuum’ has been, to my mind, the single-most important achievement of Kolin’s book. He has been able to demonstrate, through an analysis of (sensational) realpolitik, as well as more prosaic politico-economic facts, that imperialist aggression, destruction of democracy inside the imperialist nation, resistance, both inside and abroad, and policy at large (both ‘pro-‘ and ‘anti-people’) are inextricable entwined. In a way then, this book is an allegory of politics in a world dominated by the capitalist mode of production.

This final point about policy, or more precisely, the part about ‘pro-people’ policy needs to be explained a bit more. Kolin shows that the meeting of demands raised by protestors does not necessarily (in fact, never) means a systemic improvement – cooption is the word. When the tendency toward militarisation becomes excessive, the chances of an implosion increase (this becomes visible, primarily in peoples’ discontent), and to ‘manage’ this state of affairs the state seems to give in to demands; everything suddenly becomes more democratic. But this improvement is always temporary, and in a way buys time for the capitalist state to reorganise itself for a fresh assault. Obama, for instance, seems to be buying time in precisely this manner – making cosmetic changes, making promises that he does not keep, and so on. The fact is, and this too Kolin brings out, that the state tries its best to destroy movements. When it fails to do that, it meets those demands that do not need a fundamental reorganisation of the social structure. ‘Affirmative action’ was one such demand, which allowed the state to control the furore of the Civil Rights Movement without hurting hegemonic interests too much.

This much said, two more bases are left to be covered, by this essay and by the book. All radical theorists invariably run into a persistent problem in the process of explicating the workings of the system. One does not want to overplay the aspect of agency, nor celebrate the ‘victories’ of movements, without appending a warning about the system’s ability to coopt struggles. If we do this, we risk the pitfall of reformism and the cause of revolutionary transformation may suffer. On the other hand, if we focus upon the system and its ‘largeness’, its ‘perfections’, its capacity to survive and rejuvenate itself, our work may have a pessimistic, anaesthetic effect on the reader, once again defeating our cause. And this is the problem that Kolin’s book runs into. The vast intricacies of the functioning of the state impart to it a sublimity that seems beyond comprehension; and what we cannot comprehend, we surely cannot fight. On top of this, the ability of this state (of affairs) to perpetuate itself by coopting all attempts to subvert it.

But this is where another aspect of the text becomes important: the periodically stated, if somewhat inadequately developed (within the text) centrality of ‘class’.

Usually, the text mentions class when it tries to distinguish between struggles whose demands are easier for the state to meet, because they do not question its foundations, and others, which do just that and are invariably forcefully suppressed. Admittedly the text does not explain why “class-based” struggles are somehow harder to coopt. The detour through political economy that this would entail would have done away with any possibility that may exist, of the reader being too overwhelmed with surface structures to grasp the deep structures that generate them.  I would argue that any attempt at ‘cognitive mapping’ (to use Fredric Jameson’s phrase), any attempt, in other words, to get a handle on the state-of-affairs will need to begin with an understanding of class struggle, understood not as a one-on-one battle between two groups, but as a struggle of tendencies that become visible to us in synchronic force-fields of identity assertions. Though, as has been said, the text does not elaborate upon the process of class struggle, it does manage to give the reader a sense that each synchronic fact that it describes is overdetermined by a complex underlying process that unites it to other such facts. In its detailed description of the pendulum-like movement of the state between greater and lesser democracy, and the relation of this movement to struggles of peoples, it is able to present an image of history as the complex dialectic between autonomy constituted in, as and by the momentary contingencies of a necessarily continuous critique and its equally inevitable and continuous structural determination.

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