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Obama’s SOTU, authoritarian followership, and civil society: Part II

[Cross-posted to Naked Capitalism. --lambert]

Last week in Part I of this piece, I argued that Obama's recent State of The Union speech endorsed a particular model of military organization named the "warrior ethos" by its DOD developers, and that this ethos and American soldier's oath of enlistment (10 U.S.C. § 502) were in contradiction. That is, one can treat the "mission" and the "team" as primary, or the Constitution and the UCMJ as primary, but not both. Ethos is one thing; the rule of law another, and in the SOTU Obama, by focusing exclusively on the first, rejected the second -- and not merely for the military, but for civil society also, since the SOTU posits that the warrior ethos should apply to all citizens, not only soldiers.

Obama's rejection of the rule of law should surprise nobody who has been following his administration's failure to prosecute bank executives for accounting control fraud, his abolition of due process when assassinating U.S. citizens, or his vote, while still a candidate, to grant retroactive immunity to the telcos for felonies committed during the program of warrantless surveillance initiated by the Bush administration.

Thus with this post I find myself in much the same position that Stoller did when he trangressed the unwritten law by pointing out that He Who Shall Not Be Legitimized By Naming Him, unlike any other legacy party candidate in the race, "staunchly opposed" the empire, causing a collective intracranial splatterfest among "liberal" Obama apologists. Strange bedfellows! Indeed, Jonah Goldberg, proving definitively the proposition that even a blind pig finds a truffle every so often, seems to have gotten it more right than wrong with "liberal fascism", assuming that by this point -- and why would we not? -- that the only thing that distinguishes "liberals" from any other tribe in DC is that big O they wear on their jerseys while shaking their team pom poms. (Both Will and Goldberg, who have contrasting jerseys and pom poms, veer off into blaming Obama. However, here, as elsewhere, the continuities between this administration and its predecessor are far greater than the differences.)

What would civil society look like if it didn't have the unit cohesion that Obama advocates? Well, it might look much like it once did. De Toqueville, Democracy in America:

It is not impossible to conceive the surpassing liberty which the Americans enjoy; some idea may likewise be formed of the extreme equality which subsists amongst them, but the political activity which pervades the United States must be seen in order to be understood. No sooner do you set foot upon the American soil than you are stunned by a kind of tumult; a confused clamor is heard on every side; and a thousand simultaneous voices demand the immediate satisfaction of their social wants. Everything is in motion around you; here, the people of one quarter of a town are met to decide upon the building of a church; there, the election of a representative is going on; a little further the delegates of a district are posting to the town in order to consult upon some local improvements; or in another place the laborers of a village quit their ploughs to deliberate upon the project of a road or a public school. Meetings are called for the sole purpose of declaring their disapprobation of the line of conduct pursued by the Government; whilst in other assemblies the citizens salute the authorities of the day as the fathers of their country. Societies are formed which regard drunkenness as the principal cause of the evils under which the State labors, and which solemnly bind themselves to give a constant example of temperance.

(Fascinatingly, De Tocqueville's final example prefigures not only the temperance movement but AA, the paradigmatic American example of successful horizontal scaling on a continental scale.) It is perhaps needless to say that this picture of how citizens act is diametrically opposed to Obama's: De Tocqueville shows Americans acting from the bottom up; but "the mission" is top down, not merely because the concept is informed by the command and control structures of the military, but by definition: See Joint Publication 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms [PDF], for the definition: "... a duty assigned." The mission is top down, imposed by a higher authority; Obama, at least visibly, being the highest. "Meeting," "deciding," and "electing," let alone "forming societies" are completely antithetical to the mission-based system of command and control that Obama advocates. Whoever heard of any army where any soldier could decide what the mission was, and try to persuade others to follow them? De Tocqueville's "thousand simultaneous voices" would drive the officers nuts! (I should say that there are other concepts of citizenship besides the two opposed here, and that Occupy is exploring some of them.)

Why would Obama adopt such an anti-democratic concept of citizenship? We can't know, but it would be irresponsible not to speculate. Sure, "Kings. What a good idea!" but perhaps Obama's thinking was more pragmatic: Do what has worked in the past. After all, the training at the Camp Obamas in 2008, despite or perhaps because of its kinship to religiosity and celebrity worship, shared characteristics with military training processes designed to encourage unit cohesion, and especially their greatest danger: In the absence of the rule of law and regulations -- the analogy in the political world would be concrete policy proposals and accountability ("No one thought about politics," SOTU) -- "the mission" becomes whatever the "team leader" defines as the mission; for example, His election. "He looked at me, and the look in his eyes was worth 1,000 words" (see also). Bug? Or feature? (Occupy, with its hitherto resolute rejection of leaders -- or, more precisely, its encouragement of "leaderfulness" -- has been encouraging in this regard.)

Anyhow, speculation! I'm not making the claim that Obama For America was in any sense militarized. What I am claiming is that OFA and Obama's militarized vision of civil society-as-unit share a common characteristic: They encourage authoritarian followership. (The concept of authoritarian followership was developed and refined by Canadian psychologist Robert Altemeyer with statistical studies based on a questionaire he devised. Here is a review of his methodology [PDF]. Here is a dissenting view which, at our 30,000 foot view, amounts to the same result with different sourcing. This post is not an exhaustive treatment of the subject; for that, read Altemeyer or, to see it in action, Dean.) Ironically, "liberals" like John Dean in Conservatives Without Conscience have characterized authoritarian followership as a "right wing" phenomenon, but with Obama's SOTU we see that it's thoroughly bipartisan! Read this impressionistic portrait from Altemeyer and you'll see how closely Obama's militarized vision of civil society speaks to the authorarian follower. Quotes from SOTU in brackets:

Authoritarian followers want to belong ["On it are each of their names"], and being part of their in-group ["you rise or fall as one unit"] means a lot to them ["These achievements are a testament"]. Loyalty to that group ranks among the highest virtues, and members of the group who question its leaders or beliefs can quickly be seen as traitors. Can you also sense from these items the energy, the commitment, the submission, and the zeal -- "He looked at me..." supra -- that authoritarian followers are ready to give to their in-groups, and the satisfaction ["they exceed all expectations"] they would get from being a part of a vast, powerful movement in which everyone thought the same way? ["All that mattered that day was the mission."]

I think that Godwin would prefer that I stop now; I'll leave you with Matt Taibbi's invocation of what a civil society should and could be:

now, I get it. People want to go someplace for at least five minutes where no one is trying to bleed you or sell you something. It may not be a real model for anything, but it's at least a place where people are free to dream of some other way for human beings to get along, beyond auctioned "democracy," tyrannical commerce and the bottom line.

We're a nation that was built on a thousand different utopian ideas [like de Tocqueville's "thousand simultaneous voices"], from the Shakers to the Mormons to New Harmony, Indiana. It was possible, once, for communities to experiment with everything from free love to an end to private property. But nowadays even the palest federalism is swiftly crushed. ....

People want out of this fiendish system, rigged to inexorably circumvent every hope we have for a more balanced world. They want major changes. I think I understand now that this is what the Occupy movement is all about. It's about dropping out, if only for a moment, and trying something new, the same way that the civil rights movement of the 1960s strived to create a "beloved community" free of racial segregation.

Which vision is closer to Taibbi's? Obama's? Or De Tocqueville's? What is your vision?

NOTE FWIW, and I'm not a theorist, I don't see Occupations as abolishing the rule of law (though others will certainly differ) but rather fulfilling it. You can't organize a kitchen or a library with the political equivalent of Brownian motion or reflexive reaction. But you can, as it were, open-source the law and make it a good deal more amenable to the needs of people on the ground, and that provide concrete material benefits. These experiments are especially important, even humane, when the law is brittle, and the nature of the State is in flux.

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goldberry's picture
Submitted by goldberry on

Taibbi and I seem to be on the same party line. Occupy's greatest challenge is to come up with a new system. The problem is, we don't have enough time. So, we need to come up with a placeholder demand that will give us more time to formulate a response to the Republicans. I think the demand absolutely *has* to be about preserving the integrity of the electoral system.

coyotecreek's picture
Submitted by coyotecreek on

...the attempted re-framing of Occupy by the Democratic Party and Obama.

If you listen to the crap they are spewing, it's all about "income equality". That is not what I joined/continue to support the Occupy Movement for.

Occupy Wall Street - the basis of the Occupy Movement - is/was about political corruption by corporations. I firmly believe that if we get corporate money out - and corporately bribed politicians out - of our political system, we can - at least - begin a dialogue as equal voices as to how/what/when/why we want this country to stand for.

By turning this discussion to income inequality language the Democrats are positioning the Occupation to their political/election benefit...but to the detriment of the Occupation. I don't have any problem with people making honest money through their honest hard work. I DO HAVE A PROBLEM WITH THOSE RICH PEOPLE THEN BUYING OUR POLITICAL SYSTEM...AND OUR POLITICIANS ACCEPTING THEIR BRIBES.

OCCUPY EVERYWHERE! But not the Democratic Party which is as corrupt as the Republicans.

tom allen's picture
Submitted by tom allen on

"Kings. What a good idea!"

Folks before Terry Pratchett had this idea. I refer you to the Biblical prophet Samuel, believe him or not :-P

10 So Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking for a king from him. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. 12 And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. 15 He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. 16 He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”

Sound like any empire you know of these days? Pity we humans never learn. :-(