America & Authoritarianism; Racism, Enlightenment & Incarceration in the Age of Trump


Jasper Johns, 1958 – three Flags, En-caustic on canvas, Courtesy N*Studio

Authoritarianism, autocracy and amnesia have always been central to “America.” Re-reading, Hannah Arendt’s 1966 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, I was struck by the following passage,

“Closely related to the attraction which the mob’s lack of hypocrisy and the masses’ lack of self-interest exerted themselves on the [intellectual] elite was the equally irresistible appeal of the totalitarian movements’ spurious claims to have abolished the separation between private and public life and to have restored a mysterious irrational wholeness to man. Since Balzac revealed the private lives of the public figures of French society and since Ibsen’s dramatization of the ‘Pillars of Society’ had conquered Continental theater, the issue of double morality was one of the main topics of tragedies, comedies and novels. Double morality as practiced by the bourgeoisie became the outstanding sign of that esprit de sérieux, which is always pompous and never sincere. This division between private and public or social life had nothing to do with the justified separation between the personal and public spheres, but was rather a psychological reflection of the nineteenth-century struggle between bourgeois and citoyen, between a man who judged and used all public institutions by the yardstick of his private interests and the responsible citizen who was concerned with public affairs as the affairs of all. In this connection, the liberals’ political philosophy, according to which the mere sum of individual interests adds up to the miracle of the common good, appeared to be only a rationalization to the recklessness with which private interests were pressed together regardless of the common good.

Against the class spirit of the Continental parties, which had always admitted they represented certain interests, against the ‘opportunism’ resulting from their conception of themselves as only parts of a total, the totalitarian movements asserted their ‘superiority’ in that they carried a Weltanshauug [or ‘world-view’] by which they would take possession of man as a whole. In this claim to totality the mob leaders of the [totalitarian] movements again formulated and only reversed the bourgeoisie’s own political philosophy. The bourgeois class, having made its way through social pressure and, frequently, through an economic blackmail of political institutions, always believed that the public and visible organs of power were directed by their own secret, non-public interests and influences. In this sense, the bourgeoisie’s political philosophy was always ‘totalitarian’; it always assumed an identity of politics, economics and society, in which political institutions served only as a facade for private interests.” (pp. 440-441)

Totalitarianism arises out of already existing bourgeois political philosophies. Fascism’s mob didn’t simply arise as a reaction to the breakdown of these capitalist systems, with their complex “organs of power  … directed by … secret, non-public interests and influences,” but rather arose from these bourgeois systems themselves.  Henry Wiencek writing in the Smithsonian, states,

“The very existence of slavery in the era of the American Revolution presents a paradox, and we have largely been content to leave it at that, since a paradox can offer a comforting state of moral suspended animation. Jefferson animates the paradox. And by looking closely at Monticello, we can see the process by which he rationalized an abomination to the point where an absolute moral reversal was reached and he made slavery fit into America’s national enterprise […]

The Virginia abolitionist Moncure Conway, noting Jefferson’s enduring reputation as a would-be emancipator, remarked scornfully, “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.”

Thomas Jefferson’s mansion stands atop his mountain like the Platonic ideal of a house: a perfect creation existing in an ethereal realm, literally above the clouds. To reach Monticello, you must ascend what a visitor called “this steep, savage hill,” through a thick forest and swirls of mist that recede at the summit, as if by command of the master of the mountain. “If it had not been called Monticello,” said one visitor, “I would call it Olympus, and Jove its occupant.” The house that presents itself at the summit seems to contain some kind of secret wisdom encoded in its form. Seeing Monticello is like reading an old American Revolutionary manifesto—the emotions still rise. This is the architecture of the New World, brought forth by its guiding spirit.

In designing the mansion, Jefferson followed a precept laid down two centuries earlier by Palladio: “We must contrive a building in such a manner that the finest and most noble parts of it be the most exposed to public view, and the less agreeable disposed in by places, and removed from sight as much as possible.”

The mansion sits atop a long tunnel through which slaves, unseen, hurried back and forth carrying platters of food, fresh tableware, ice, beer, wine and linens, while above them 20, 30 or 40 guests sat listening to Jefferson’s dinner-table conversation. At one end of the tunnel lay the icehouse, at the other the kitchen, a hive of ceaseless activity where the enslaved cooks and their helpers produced one course after another.

During dinner Jefferson would open a panel in the side of the fireplace, insert an empty wine bottle and seconds later pull out a full bottle. We can imagine that he would delay explaining how this magic took place until an astonished guest put the question to him. The panel concealed a narrow dumbwaiter that descended to the basement. When Jefferson put an empty bottle in the compartment, a slave waiting in the basement pulled the dumbwaiter down, removed the empty, inserted a fresh bottle and sent it up to the master in a matter of seconds. Similarly, platters of hot food magically appeared on a revolving door fitted with shelves, and the used plates disappeared from sight on the same contrivance. Guests could not see or hear any of the activity, nor the links between the visible world and the invisible that magically produced Jefferson’s abundance.”

Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826), arguably one of the most famous leaders of a bourgeois revolution against the old monarchical order, lived as “a man who judged and used all public institutions by the yardstick of his private interests and the responsible citizen who was concerned with public affairs as the affairs of all.” Manifesting his private interests – namely the use of free, slave labor – alongside his role as responsible citizen, Jefferson maintained bourgeois respectability. Arguably, the majority of elementary schools in “America” nary mention the “slave waiting in the basement” for the revered Jefferson’s empty wine bottles.

Liberal, democratic republicanism, fueled by the economic inefficiencies, breakdowns and overthrows of the old feudal order in the Euro-American “worlds,” expanded the control of these “enlightened men” through genocide, slavery and “homesteading” (or colonial settlerism). Enshrining facades of constitutional barriers to absolute political power, the bourgeoisie – unshackled from the Medievalists’ Feudal Notions (commonly held lands, artisans, serf/lord, etcetera)  — began a hegemonic, vitalizing process, literally taking over entire continents. In managing these “new frontiers,” which included the imperial cores (for the psychical and material realities shifting on the edges of Euro-American expansionism were also felt in its core), utilitarian philosophies of control, ever more discrete, began to be developed. Jeremy Bentham’s (1748 – 1832) panopticon is perhaps the most terrifying example; a building-machine designed for total observation of prisoners, or at least, the possibility of total observation which induces a sort of paranoia and inner-watcher in the mind of the prisoner.  Bentham himself writes, the panopticon is, “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” Ironically and tragically, Bentham, who opposed slavery, would create the central architectural technology for mass incarceration, a segregationist continuation of slavery and anti-Blackness, what is called by Michelle Alexander (and others) the New Jim Crow.

Here between and betwixt this interplay of two interconnected centuries we see the contours of the visible and invisible becoming less sure. Jefferson’s “magic” relied heavily on the invisibility of the chattel slave, the barred and marked Subject, whereas Bentham’s panopticon is based on intense scrutiny, completely transparent and visible, of the barred and marked Subject. As the lineation between what is visible and invisible, in a very epistemic sense, becomes mixed, very problematic operations impede and are assimilated into post-“enlightenment” Euro-American projects. Capitalist-State powers must be transparent and private, hidden and revealed, open and closed, etcetera. In order to maintain a semblance of democracy these Capitalist-State totalitarianisms, which took nearly two centuries to fully implement and obtain “power of mind over mind,” consistently divided private and public life. This divisionary hypocrisy instigated another formation of totalitarianism, Fascism, the “pure” binding of “the people” with the State and Industry.

Ethno-nationalism, white supremacist ideologies and colonialism all created the world in which a Holocaust could happen. Hitler’s merger of himself with the masses, a radical rejection of the past private and public spheres, his use of meticulous and utilitarian bureaucratic lackeys to implement the planned, regimented and monitored genocide of millions, his racist theories, his belief in German supremacy can be traced back to, at least, the “eminent” philosopher G.F.W. Hegel (1770 – 1831). Hegel places race as central to his ontology, writing in The Philosophy of History (1837),

“In Negro life the characteristic point is the fact that consciousness has not yet attained to the realization of any substantial objective existence – a for example, God or Law – in which the interest of man’s volition is involved and in which he realizes his own being. The distinction between himself as an individual and the universality of his essential being, the African in the uniform, undeveloped oneness of his existence has not yet attained; so that the Knowledge of an absolute Being, an Other and a Higher than his individual self, is entirely wanting.

The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality – all that we call feeling – if we would rightly comprehend him; there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character. The copious and circumstantial accounts of Missionaries completely confirm this, and Mahommedanism appears to be the only thing which in any way brings within the range of culture. Death itself is looked upon by the Negros as no universal natural law; even this, they think, proceeds from evil-disposed magicians. Tyranny is regarded as no wrong, and cannibalism is looked upon as quite customary and proper. Among us instinct deters from it, if we can speak of instinct at all as appertaining to man. But with the Negro this is not the case, and the devouring of human flesh is altogether consonant with the general principles of the African race; to the sensual Negro, human flesh is but an object of sense – mere flesh.

Among the Negroes moral sentiments are quite weak, or more strictly speaking, non-existent. Parents sell their children, and conversely children their parents, as either has the opportunity. Through the pervading influence of slavery all those bonds of moral regard which we cherish towards each other disappear and it does not occur to the Negro mind to expect from others what we are enabled to claim. The polygamy of the Negroes has frequently for its object the having many children, to be sold, every one of them, into slavery; and very often naïve complaints of this score are heard, as for instance the case of a Negro in London, who lamented that he was not quite a poor man because he had already sold all his relations.

The only essential connection that has existed and continued between the Negroes and the Europeans is that of slavery. In this the Negroes see nothing unbecoming them, and the English who have done the most for abolishing the salve-trade and slavery, are treated by the Negroes themselves as enemies.

At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit. Historical movements in it – that is in its northern part – belong to the Asiatic or European World.”

Widely elided, Hegel’s central thesis, his entire ontology is based on race and racism. Hegel sees the becoming of consciousness, history, and “knowledge of an absolute being” as central to humanity. If this process cannot happen in Africa, if Africans are outside the progression of Spirit and History, then they cannot be properly called human. Hegel states, of Africans, “there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character.” Obscure philosophical conceptual theories of the early 19th century, note I have placed the birth and death years of each person mentioned, along with “enlightened constitutionalism” merged to create the terrors of the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Jim Crow segregation and the genocidal near extermination of the Native Americans. Notably, Hitler (1889 – 1945) would be inspired by these “enlightened” men and their methods, Simon Moya-Smith writes,

“Hitler’s concept of concentration camps as well as the practicality of genocide owed much, so he claimed, to his studies of English and United States history,” Toland wrote in his book, Adolf Hitler: The Definitive Biography. “He admired the camps for Boer prisoners in South Africa and for the Indians in the wild west; and often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America’s extermination—by starvation and uneven combat—of the red savages who could not be tamed by captivity.”

Now, of course, it is not in the best national interest of the U.S. to recognize such a realization as presented by Toland. As I’ve said time and again, you cannot be the greatest nation in the world if you’re guilty of genocide – and especially if your country’s policies were the inspiration that engineered one of the world’s most devastating genocides.

And, of course, the evidence is readily available to those who’d seek it that European settlers (i.e. invaders who would later divorce themselves from their motherland, renaming each other “Americans”) did, in fact, set into motion a detailed template – justifications (Divine Right), policies (Indian Removal), procedures (Wounded Knee) – for Hitler to follow.

In fact, President Thomas Jefferson himself famously said (well, famous throughout Native America) that the “(American Indian has) justified (their own) extermination.” And it was George Washington who thought the only way to kill Native Americans was to rage war on their crops.”

Nazi Germany took the “racial principle” to is most grotesque extreme, utilizing the most advanced mass incarceration and extermination techniques, which were born out of industrialism, utilitarianism, “American” bourgeois democracy, and “enlightened” philosophers seeking Truth. From David Hume (1711 – 176) to Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) racist epistemological frameworks were presented as de facto True. Hume shockingly states, in his 1742 Footnote to the National Character,

“I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual, eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the Whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartars, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negro slaves dispersed all over Europe, of whom none ever discovered the symptoms of ingenuity; though low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one Negro as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly.”

Again, the humanism of the “enlightenment” only extended so far as the whites of the esteemed philosopher’s eyes could see the white skin of his neighbor. Kant also precludes Africans from humanity, citing Hume (neither had been to Africa),

“The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling. Mr. Hume challenges anyone to cite a single example in which a Negro has shown talents, and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries, although many of them have even been set free, still not a single one was every found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality, even though among the whites some continually rise aloft from the lowest rabble, and through superior gifts earn respect in the world. So fundamental is the difference between these two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in colour. The religion of fetishes so widespread among them is perhaps a sort of idolatry that sinks as deeply into the trifling as appears to be possible to human nature. A bird’s feather, a cow’s horn, a conch shell, or any other common object, as soon as it becomes consecrated by a few words, is an object of veneration and of invocation in swearing oaths. The blacks are very vain but in the Negro’s way, and so talkative that they must be driven apart from each other with thrashings.”

So talkative they must be driven away from each other with thrashings? Yet, take a course on philosophy, and these quotes will be omitted. Take a course on the history of the United States, even at the college level, and the connection between Washington, Jefferson and Hitler will be omitted. Admiration for Hitler is rightly seen as an abomination, yet ultimately the State-Capitalist apparatuses will, through pedagogy and policing, retreat to the ideas (Hume, Kant, Hegel), methods (Bentham) and ideals (Washington, Jefferson) of a “better” authoritarianism.  And so it is today, when over 500 million Africans, or “47 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa live on $1.90 a day or less, a principal factor in causing widespread hunger.” And so it is today, as the NAACP reports,

  • In 2014, African Americans constituted 2.3 million, or 34%, of the total 6.8 million correctional population.
  • African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.
  • The imprisonment rate for African American women is twice that of white women.
  • Nationwide, African American children represent 32% of children who are arrested, 42% of children who are detained, and 52% of children whose cases are judicially waived to criminal court.
  • Though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32% of the US population, they comprised 56% of all incarcerated people in 2015.
  • If African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40%.

Clearly, all the features of authoritarianism are present within contemporary Capitalism, backed by powerful cabals of incredibly wealthy elites who utilize, manipulate and control the great bureaucratic mechanisms of State power. Within this context, it is but a little wonder that Donald Trump is the US president. Representing the apotheosis of mobster, racist demagogue and abysmally intellectually disinterested in anything that isn’t himself, which is a nearly non-local, vacuous, empty ever-denser mass of nothingness, around which swirls Twitter texts, hamburgers and paranoia, Trump wants to merge with “the people.” The “beautiful people,” he loves rallies; he loves attention; he loves this merger with “America.” Arendt, again in The Origins of Totalitarianism, writes,

“In substance, the totalitarian leader is nothing more nor less than a functionary of the masses he leads […] Being a mere functionary, he can be replaced at any time, and he depends just as much on the “will” of the masses he embodies as the masses depend on him. Without him they would lack external representation and remain an amorphous horde; without the masses the leader is a non-entity […] Domination [of this kind] was something no state and no mere apparatus of violence could ever achieve, but only a movement that is constantly kept in motion: namely, the permanent domination of each single individual in each and every sphere of life.” (pp. 426-427)

Whilst the current iteration of Capitalist-State authoritarianism within the Euro-American imperial core, namely that Imaginary/Imagery “America,”  is Trump(ism), the underlying authoritarianism is the circulation of capital itself, the exploitation of the labor of the masses, even as large sectors of them place their hopes in xenophobic, savior-billionaires, and concurrently occurring mass incarceration and policing of the still-not-accepted-as-human non-white persons. Lofty liberal, democratic “humanist” principles, based on the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th Century, the “enlightened” philosophies of History (Kant, Hegel) and Happiness (Bentham), and the complete domination of Capital in the 19th Century, have created such misery, yet they are held onto as dreams, hopes and fears, even by those they crush. I witnessed this personally in prison; prisoners desiring to be rich, powerful, dominating; in other words, wanting to wield some of the weight of a structure that had been used to crush them, but without questioning it; ergo, it is not simply a power relation we are dealing with, but an obedience relation. This power-obedience relation means we, those of us unable to wield institutional power, dance asymmetrically with the ruling elite. The tension between visible and invisible, Black and white, power and obedience, have all coalesced, they have been coalescing for centuries, and now they are interpenetrating the present, we are confronted with their presences and absences.

. . .

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