Post-Shame

by Jeff Strabone

One of the duties of the modern nation-state is persuasion. Each state aims to keep its citizens convinced of the legitimacy of its rule. The state may be run chiefly for the enrichment of a few at the cost of the many, but the endurance of the state is widely thought to depend on its ability to sell its rule to the many as a common-sense truism. Or at least that was how it used to work. We may be entering a new era in the evolution of the state, one where the state approaches a state of utter shamelessness.

Gramsci Antonio Gramsci, in his prison notebooks, called this persuasive activity 'hegemony'. According to Gramsci, hegemony occludes the domination of the state and the classes whose interests it serves. One does not have to be an Italian communist of the 1920s to see the usefulness of Gramsci's groundbreaking insight. Broadly speaking, all political actors pursue their agendas by trying to narrow other people's imaginations in order to make desired outcomes seem common-sensical and undesired outcomes outside the ambit of reasonable thought.

It seems to me that over the past decade, in the United States, the state and a narrow circle of powerful interests—banks, energy companies, and private health insurers in particular—have simply given up trying to persuade the rest of us that their interests were our interests. Could we be moving in the twenty-first century to a state that practices domination without hegemony? Or, to put it in plain English, will the state shamelessly turn itself completely over to serving the interests of a powerful few without bothering to pretend that it's not? And if it does, how should we respond?

I am not the only one asking these questions. A recent book by Eva Cherniavsky of the University of Washington has helped me gather my own thoughts about this ongoing development. In chapter two of her book Incorporations: Race, Nation, and the Body Politics of Capital (2006), Cherniavsky, drawing on Gramsci, suggests that the United States is experiencing 'a return of sorts to a premodern state formation, characterized by the external imposition of force', a condition that she likens to colonial rule, where the rulers don't care about the consent of the many. Consider how closely Cherniavsky hits the mark in light of Bush and Cheney's no-bid contracts given out in Iraq, the impossibility of considering single-payer health insurance under Obama, the unlikelihood of legislation designed to slow global warming, and the government's inability to regulate Wall Street under Clinton, Bush, or Obama:

At issue, then, in the state's contemporary practices is not only the disregard for something approximating the welfare of 'the people' (a regard that has always been partial and uneven at best, overwritten by the imperatives of property) but also a dwindling concern with the crafting of a perceived public interest that the state can claim to secure. The dubious fate of hegemony as a form of power is legible both in the exacerbated promotion of elite interests and (what does not necessarily follow) in the increasingly overt display of the state's mercenary dedication to those interests.

Dubious fate of hegemony indeed. No one in government or on Wall Street is even trying to sell us on the legitimacy of the financial sector's wholesale robbery of the rest of us. The New York Times for January 21 reported the following, not as part of a crime blotter but in its business section:

Despite the first annual loss in its 74-year history, Morgan Stanley earmarked 62 cents of every dollar of revenue for compensation, an astonishing figure, even by the gilded standards of Wall Street. In all, the bank set aside $14.4 billion for salaries and bonuses.

This from a bank bailed out by the state.

J.M. Coetzee treats the shamelessness of the state in the U.S. and Australia in his 2007 novel Diary of a Bad Year (2007). Señor C, the novel's protagonist, imagines a politically charged performance that gives new meaning to the term 'Theatre of Cruelty':

Someone should put together a ballet under the title Guantanamo, Guantanamo! A corps of prisoners, their ankles shackled together, thick felt mittens on their hands, muffs over their ears, black hoods over their heads, do the dances of the persecuted and desperate. Around them, guards in olive-green uniforms prance with demonic energy and glee, cattle prods and billy-clubs at the ready. They touch the prisoners with the prods and the prisoners leap; they wrestle prisoners to the ground and shove the clubs up their anuses and the prisoners go into spasms. In a corner, a man on stilts in a Donald Rumsfeld mask alternately writes at his lectern and dances ecstatic little jigs.

One day it will be done, though not by me. It may even be a hit in London and Berlin and New York. It will have absolutely no effect on the people it targets, who could not care less what ballet audiences think of them.

I confess to being excited by the prospect of such a ballet as I read the first paragraph. When I reached the end of the second, I knew how right Señor C was and how delusional the admonition to 'Speak truth to power' really is: when power is exercised shamelessly, it has no need for truth.

Similarly-themed art in the real world fares no better than Coetzee's imaginary Guantánamo ballet even when it works, as Jenny Holzer's Redaction Paintings series shows. Amazon's product description of the catalogue is spot-on yet cannot help but sound like a satire of the New York art world:

Holzer This elegant clothbound monograph gathers the most recent work by the seminal language-based installation artist, Jenny Holzer. Presented to great acclaim at New York's Cheim & Read gallery this past summer, the work consists of enlarged, colorized silkscreen “paintings” of declassified and oftentimes heavily censored American military and intelligence documents that have recently been made available to the public through the Freedom of Information Act. Beautiful in their own right, the works are also haunting reminders of what really goes on behind the scenes in the American military/political power system. Documents address counter-terrorism, prisoner abuse, and even the threat of Osama Bin Laden. Some of the documents are almost completely inked out, like Colin Powell's memo on Defense Intelligence Agency reorganization. Others are spotty enough to allow readers to try to fill in the blanks. As Roberta Smith wrote in the New York Times, these are 'the hardest-hitting, least hypothetical texts of Holzer's career.'

I deeply admired these works when I saw them at Cheim & Reid in Chelsea in 2006 and again at the Whitney in 2009, but I do not know what depressed me more: being reminded of the shameless deeds of the Bush era or feeling the political powerlessness of politically powerful art.

Torture, of course, is nothing new. The United States has been implicated in torture before, most famously in Central America in the 1980s. See, for instance, the article on torture in Honduras by James LeMoyne in the New York Times Magazine for June 5, 1988. But until recently, torture was always part of covert operations. The people who ordered the operations felt they had something to hide. What torture and corporate kleptocracy have in common in the twenty-first century is the lack of shame that characterizes the responsible parties.

What happens when the state and the most powerful corporate interests forgo any illusion? I think we're about to find out. The truth is that there is no necessary narrative outcome. People may get depressed, shrug in apathy, or start a revolution. One thing I will predict with confidence is that the shamelessness will endure. It is our response that is in question.

Last week's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission confirms that shamelessness is on the march. The decision was a shameless unleashing of further shamelessness: by a majority of five to four, the justices ruled that there can be no limits on the amount of money that corporations spend trying to influence the outcomes of local and national elections. The majority reached this decision by finding that corporate money is somehow a form of speech protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. I note for the record that no other country in the world treats it as such.

The Court was wrong in perpetuating the lie that corporations are individuals for the simple reason that corporations are incapable of feeling shame. There is an automaticness to what modern corporations do. If competitors are engaging in high-risk, (temporarily) high-reward activities, then they must do the same in order to remain competitive. That is the inexorable logic of capitalism, especially as practiced by corporations whose directors are unaccountable to the shareholder-owners.

So what are we to do in the face of such shameless grabbing and wielding of state and corporate power? The first thing is to see the problem clearly. There can be no more appeals to power to do what is right in the name of reason or decency or morality. Let no one say, as so many do today, that Wall Street 'doesn't get it' or that the coal industry 'doesn't get it'. People who say that the powerful don't get it are the ones who don't get it. Wall Street does what it does because it cannot behave otherwise. We are the ones who must change.

Although the logic of corporate capitalism is inexorable, our story is not. Recent actions (and inactions) by President Obama have left me confused as to his convictions and his abilities. But if—and it can seem like a mighty big if these days—the state can still be put to work for the betterment of the many, rather than just the few at the expense of the many, it won't happen because the guy in the White House is well-intentioned or not. It may happen if progressives become as entrepreneurially ruthless as the forces arrayed against them.

That means not counting on sixty—oops, fifty-nine—Democratic U.S. Senators to pass a watered-down health care reform bill that will drive millions more people to buy insurance from the same corporations who cheat us now. If a majority of the national legislature is no longer sufficient to pass legislation, if winning elections no longer means anything, if corporations are going to rob shareholders and taxpayers alike and then spend billions more to influence elections, then it's time to rethink tactics. It may require civil disobedience on a mass scale to stop business as usual. Why is it that people who lose their jobs sometimes return to shoot their bosses and co-workers, yet people sentenced to die by insurance companies don't even picket corporate headquarters? (No, I am not advocating shooting.) You can't win a war if you don't show up to fight, and that goes for class war as well.

We will all need to think further about how to achieve change when politics no longer works, if in fact that is the impasse we have reached. But, when the powerful become so powerful that they no longer need to care what anyone else thinks of their exercises of power, the first step is to put shame aside, see the situation for what it is, and think of what other tactics are available. If the powerful can take our acquiescence so deeply for granted, then we need to figure out how to make them afraid of the restive masses once again. Here then is the answer to the question implicitly posed at the beginning: when shame no longer works, the next step is fear.

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