Great Society or Great Empire

Do not misinterpret the invective and posturing in Washington as merely the vain attempts by greedy politicians to make the headlines. Behind the public show lies a deadly serious competition for control over American wealth. American wealth can be used to develop the most comfortable and successful society the world has ever seen or it can be used to build empire, but it cannot be used for both. Far more than just a lack of resources, the requirements of empire and the requirements of the “great society on a hill”—both in the Johnson meaning of egalitarian and in the Reagan meaning of offering a moral example for the world—are mutually exclusive.

Empire needs either an angry, frightened populace willing to enslave itself to a perceived hero or a quiescent, hungry populace struggling full-time to survive: either way, leaving politics to the rulers. After 9/11, the former approach worked for a while, but as the popular questioning of national policy became more intense, the focus of empire-builders shifted to the second method. Transfer of wealth from the booming and expanding middle class to the super-rich may entail pleasant benefits for the super-rich but serves the far more serious purpose of aggregating that wealth. In the hands of a ruling military/industrial/financial elite, that aggregated wealth can be used to build empire. As for the populace, be its members angry and frightened or just desperate for work, they will willingly provide the cannon fodder that remains a necessity even for today’s high-tech war. After all, war, to be useful for extending elite power globally, must in the end lead to the construction of infrastructure (vast military bases) and the exploitation of resources (oil wells, pipelines, harbors).

Great society needs a healthy, employed, self-confident, inclusive society inspired to oversee its public servants, insistent upon civil liberties, and sufficient educated to understand what its public servants are doing. Great society needs either a socialist financial sector–with the populace diligently overseeing a transparent bureaucracy, or a capitalist financial sector under strict government  regulation—to ensure that finance serves social interests. All this is exactly the opposite of what empire-builders need.

So, when a McCain says that Senate Republicans are angry at Hagel for having criticized Bush a decade ago as he turned away from the pursuit of bin Laden to launch an unrelated invasion of Iraq, McCain is alluding to the real issue here – not a decade old policy decision that everyone knows was a disaster and that no one in Washington is willing to think about any more, since they were all complicit (with the exception of a tiny handful including Hagel). To imagine that all the Republicans in the Senate are pouting ten years later over a dead issue is ridiculous. The real issue is not the old war in Iraq but the new wars that some are lusting for.

Similarly, when a Lindsay Graham raves about a slight cut in the Pentagon’s monstrous post-9/11 budget as “unraveling” the military when “we need it most” [Huffington Post], he is actually making a serious statement: establishing the precedent of cutting unneeded Pentagon excess would threaten to unravel the momentum of the Empire-builders at the time when “we,” i.e., we Empire-builders, need that momentum the most. And about that, Mr. Graham may be right, for the overwhelming mass of evidence over the past decade shows not only that empire-building is not enhancing U.S. national security but that the needs of the American people for transferring national wealth away from the military-financial-industrial complex back to the construction of a Great Society are too real to be ignored any longer.

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