I don’t know my Gramsci especially well, but I know what might be called the simplistic, short-hand version of his theory of cultural hegemony. I understand the theory to be basically as follows: when the conventional wisdom of a society becomes so ingrained that people stop being cognizant of the fact that what they believe is not, in fact, objective truth but rather contestable ideology. Overwhelmingly, of course, it is the powerful within a society who support and enforce this conventional wisdom which, not coincidentally, leads to rather beneficial results for them and theirs. In general, when a political movement has gotten to the point where its assumptions and beliefs about the world are embraced unconsciously by everyone else, that’s when it’s really won.
By this standard, the famed military-industrial complex’s real victory is not found in its army of lobbyists or its stranglehold on DC policy. Instead, it’s found in two simple words: national security.
That’s a way to describe Corey Robin’s argument in an essay originally published in the London Review of Books and now featured in his latest book, The Reactionary Mind. Here’s the thread that ties—rather tightly—one of America’s greatest crimes of the modern era to this seemingly anodyne phrase:
There are fewer than six degrees of separation between the idea of national security and the lurid crimes of Abu Ghraib. First, each of the reasons the Bush administration gave for going to war against Iraq – the threat of WMD, Saddam’s alleged links to al-Qaida, even the promotion of democracy in the Middle East – referred in some way to protecting America. Second, everyone agrees that getting good intelligence from Iraqi informers is a critical element in defeating the insurgency. Third, US military intelligence believes that sexual humiliation is an especially forceful instrument for extracting information from recalcitrant Muslim prisoners.
The same dynamic possibly explains former Vice President Cheney’s relative lack of censure of any kind for ordering, and to this day defending, the use of torture. It’s certainly a key element of the excuses offered by the Obama Administration as to why it chose not to prosecute anyone for that crime—all involved were not only following orders, we’re told, but following orders given by men who felt the nation to be imperiled. Those were chaotic, scary days; who could have known another attack wasn’t imminent?
As should be clear to any American who has followed politics over the past 10 years, an open society that accepts the tenets of the national security ideology is unlikely to remain open for long. In general, the paranoid, anxious style of such a political culture is not conducive towards unfettered discourse and tolerance—if your life and the life of everyone you care for is potentially hanging by a thread, what patience can you really muster for democratic niceties? But the cult of national security isn’t simply corrosive towards civil society. It’s incompatible with the democratic form of government, whatever its iteration.
And that’s because, as Robin points out, the national security is such a vague concept—as all such euphemisms tend to be—that it’s almost impossible for anyone to say with any certainty what, exactly, it is. What’s more, the emphasis on the nation’s security immediately takes us into that historically dangerous realm of reducing millions of individuals into a single mass with a unifying principle. The principle can differ—sometimes it’s liberty, fraternity and equality; sometimes the dictatorship of the proletariat; sometimes lebensraum. More often than not, however, the principle is inextricably bound-up with survival itself and, crucially, can only be deigned by a tiny coterie, capable of floating above the masses and interpreting their will:
Analysts who assume that America has a discernible national interest whose defence should determine its relations with other nations are unable to explain the failure to achieve domestic consensus on international objectives.’ And this makes a good deal of sense: if an individual finds it difficult to determine her own interest, why should we expect a mass of individuals to do any better? But if a people cannot decide on its collective interest, how can it know when that interest is threatened? Faced with such confusion, leaders often fall back on what seems the most obvious definition of a threat: imminent, violent assault from an enemy, promising to end the independent life of the nation.
In America today, the concept of national security is so wholly accepted, so fundamentally unchallenged, that it’s increasingly being woven into the government’s institutional structure. How else to explain the amazing degree of consistency on this issue between the policies of Bush and Obama? It’s been widely recognized that President Obama’s greatest divergence from candidate Obama is on the issue of civil rights. Many have recognized how, on issues ranging from indefinite detention to the prosecution of torture, Obama is arguably just as bad as his predecessor. What’s gone slightly less noticed, though, is the degree to which the entire ideological framework through which Obama inevitably reaches these policy conclusions is basically the same as Bush’s.
During Bush and still today under Obama, terrorism remains an omnipresent and existential threat, one that requires the United States to act preemptively and without regard to national borders or international law. Once, Bush was our clear-eyed leader. Once, he was the one who could see—like so many throughout the rest of the world never could—how the seemingly broken and doomed Iraqi regime posed a long-term threat to our national security. The disaster that followed his decision to invade Iraq has led to the creation of a mistaken narrative in which Obama, in no small part due to his opposing the Iraq war, was elected President as a repudiation of the Bush worldview.
But rather than a reject the ideology, Obama simply questioned its practitioner. Bush wasn’t wrong; he was just doing it wrong. There was still a long-term threat to our national security; we still needed to break the pervious era’s chains of law and order to preserve our very survival. But it was the threat emanating from Afghanistan and Pakistan that necessitated such radical actions, not Iraq. We still needed masses of troops alongside drone strikes. It was merely the balance between the two that was off.And we still needed to hold people without charges for as long as we liked—just somewhere less noticeable than Guantanamo, like Colorado. The list goes on.
And as long as we continue to unthinkingly accept that there is such a thing as national security, that it requires extraordinary action and that it’s best determined by our political leaders—elected and otherwise—it’ll no doubt go on longer still. Bush, Obama, Romney; it hardly makes a difference.