Bill Maher is in the news again, as a result of his long-time campaign against Islam. I didn’t really have anything to add, given that I’ve already said everything I think about Islamophobia in the past, and people like Roqayah Chamseddine have good summaries and dissemblings of his recent statements. Anyone who’s familiar with colonialism generally and anti-Muslim bigotry specifically can already imagine what was said. The comments by Maher and Sam Harris are merely the latest in a centuries-long line of colonialist discourse, positioning the Empire as the civilizing force that brings Enlightenment values to the subjugated.
However, Maher situates his hatred of Islam on a defense of liberal values, so let’s talk about these. This happens to be a very opportune moment to take stock of where democratic ideals stand in the Western civilization of which Maher is such an ardent defender, because it’s clear that they are genuinely under attack.
In defense of his comments, Maher made a vindicating observation:
“When I used to talk about it, it was just either stony silence or outright booing and now I notice quite a shift…When I talked about it at the end of last week’s show, they stood up at the end—they cheered during it and they stood up at the end.”
I don’t doubt that people are increasingly receptive to Maher’s message, because these are reactionary times. Islamophobia is a bipartisan project in the States, but it’s not unique to the US. Islamophobia is “the premier form of racism in Europe today,” or at least the fastest-growing (since Europe’s treatment of the Roma borders on genocidal). India has elected an ultra-right wing president, whose complicity in anti-Muslim pogroms and Hindu nationalist platform make him no friend to the Muslims within India or its neighbors.
However, despite the fact that North America, Europe, and India are becoming more hostile to Muslims, democratic values are in something of an open retreat. Under terrorism charges, secret trials have been conducted by the United States, Canada, and soon, the UK. The US imprisons people over YouTube videos, Spain imprisons people for tweets. The pretense of Magna Carta protections being abandoned should be cause for concern to someone interested in defending liberal values
While the democracies of North America and Europe legally regress back to the age of feudalism, the biggest gains have been made by the world’s most reactionary forces. In the US, the Tea Party advances a right-wing neoliberal agenda while venerating guns in an open threat display. Every election cycle in the EU empowers more fascists and neo-Nazis. The pro-Russian government in Ukraine was overthrown last February with the help of neo-Nazi Ultras partially bankrolled by Washington. The world media was turgid over the election of Narendra Modi in India, ignoring that his party and its allies are neo-fascist and focusing more on his awesome campaign holograms.
To a proponent of Western liberalism and its virtues, these should be grim developments. Where is this far-right resurgence coming from? Is it Islam, which noted civilization-defender Harris recently called “the mother lode of bad ideas?”
In this, as in all matters, it’s most instructive to ask qui bono?, which I think is Latin for “who’s paying for all this?” As I was writing this, the New York Times released a story explaining that the US government used thousands of “moderate” Nazis as spies during the Cold War, a practice that continues today. From programs like that to continent-wide terror regimes like Operations Condor and Gladio, the state is very comfortable being allied with fascists. Sure enough, in the States, every good progressive knows how the far-right Koch brothers astro-turfed working-class discontent into the snarling beast of the Tea Party. However, the other half of this is that liberal hero-oligarchs like George Soros and Pierre Omidyar fund the sorts of groups that funnel money to neo-fascists in the Ukraine and India. Why would these nice rich men do this? Same reason they do anything: to make money. Journalist Chris Floyd has a great summary of what the connections between elite money, increasing inequality, and neo-fascism worldwide hold for the future:
Omidyar’s support for Modi was rewarded with a vow by the candidate to open up India’s lucrative e-commerce market to foreign corporations and techno-oligarchs — like Omidyar.
Modi has made good on his promise. One of his first acts in power has been an order to draw up guidelines for cracking open Indian e-commerce to Omidyar and others. This was a move long resisted by the previous Congress Party government — which had also refused to register a supposedly non-partisan NGO supported by Omidyar, accusing the group of illegal lobbying for a bid to…open up India’s e-commerce market to foreign companies.
Congress was also fiercely opposed to giving Omidyar and other foreign oligarchs unfettered access to the country’s e-commerce market. Now the party has gone the way of all those who interfere with the divine right of well-connected oligarchs to grab as much loot as they want, wherever they want, however they want: they’re out, and a much more amenable party is now in office.
This same dynamic was recently played out in Ukraine, with some similar elements: “non-partisan” NGOs backed by a partnership between ‘philanthropists’ like Omidyar and White House agents (who were lining up a “replacement” government in the back room). And no, this doesn’t mean that this partnership of domination controlled every element in the crisis in Ukraine or the election in India, where millions of people had legitimate grievances against the parties in power. But it does mean that this Unholy Alliance of oligarchs and imperialists is expending enormous amounts of money, energy and skullduggery to steer highly complex political developments in foreign lands in the direction they want them to go: toward the installation of friendly governments that will put the interest of financial elites and American dominance ahead of the well-being of their own people.
And the Alliance is getting better and better at doing this. They seize upon—and manipulate—legitimate grievances, then exacerbate them, distort them, confuse them and re-direct them toward the service of the elite’s domination agenda. The Tea Party movement is a perfect example. Here the elite—using media networks under oligarch control—took a groundswell of legitimate anger at how the political-financial class had blown up the economy and plunged millions into misery, ruin and insecurity, and converted it into a giant, gnarled hairball of bellicose nativism, ignorance, racism and division devoted to preserving and expanding the power and privilege of the wealthy elite.
What could have been a power countermovement to roll back the excesses of the corporatism, oligarchy and militarism that have held bipartisan sway in America for more than 30 years was twisted into a tool to enhance the power of the already powerful. The chaos this unruly hairball has brought to the political system is also a plus for the Unholy Alliance: the more unstable the country is, the more people will long for “strong” leaders, like Modi, for rich and powerful figures who seem “above the fray” of petty politics and can bring “unity” to a troubled polity — like the oligarch recently elected as Ukraine’s president, or, indeed, like Michael Bloomberg in New York City.
The presence of the Tea Party (used here as shorthand for the broad range of far-right extremists now rampant in the land) is also convenient for the Democrats, giving them a convenient hate figure to stir up fear (and scoop up donations) and, more importantly, to use as an excuse, a cover for their own faithful service to the wealthy elite. “Hey, we would like a more just society, but darn it, darn it, darn it, those Tea Party kooks won’t let us do anything!” “That’s all right, Mr. President, we understand,” say the earnest progressive liberals and the gritty savvy ‘dissidents’ on the left. “We understand, and we still love you. You’re still ‘two percent less evil’ than the kooks!” The Democrats get to protect their “brand identity” as the more caring, progressive party—while deliberately and willingly advancing the same neoliberal agenda of elite domination also being pushed by “mainstream Republicans” and the Tea Party.
With “austerity” degrading the nation’s physical and social infrastructure, the political system reduced to sinister buffoonery and slick PR puffery, and the rich and powerful increasingly beyond all reach of the law (which bears down harder and harder on the rabble at every turn), our elites seem hellbent on making the country ungovernable, plunging it into fear-ridden chaos. Meanwhile, the militarization of police forces around the country continues apace, abetted at every turn by the latest technology.
[M]y last piece on Omidyar and Modi was “not cynical enough,” and did not draw out the connection between what oligarchs such as Omidyar, in partnership with Washington, have done in Ukraine and India — and what they are up to on the home front…A sinister game is afoot, and its aim is not a more just, open and free society, or even the maintenance of the status quo, but the destruction of the common good and the imposition of an ever-tightening domination by an alliance of private elites and repressive governments. There are too many developments on too many fronts for the obvious trends in this direction to be seen as nothing more than happy accidents for the elite. Again, political and social situations have many different causes, many different factors at work, and are never in the sole control of any single force. But it seems increasingly obvious that our neoliberal elites are using their immense power, public and private, to manipulate (or at times create) situations of conflict and instability that they then try to bend to the service of their agenda.
But this is all of a piece with the general trend, the ever-more obvious agenda of the ruling elite. From neoliberalism to neofascism to, ultimately, neofeudalism: a new dark age, where the rabble live in fear and want, at the mercy of powerful, unaccountable elites locked away in gated splendor. (Though to be sure, they will sally forth now and then in squabbles amongst themselves for a bigger share of loot and power — squabbles which inevitably involve the death and ruin of multitudes of innocent people.) As noted here the other day, old evils — fascism, racism, nationalism, feudalism — don’t die. They return in new forms, and have to be fought again, over and over.
As Floyd wrote in another piece also worth reading, “that’s right, it’s war—class war.”
The constellation of monied interests commonly called the elites have decided that open fascism is going to be the best way for them to get what they want going forward. For the elites, fascism is a weapon to open up non-compliant states to capitalist exploitation, as happened in Yanukovych’s Ukraine and pre-Modi India. Billionaires are billionaires because they can recognize a good investment and get ROI. When they sink tens of millions into “transparency” NGOs that inevitably precede business-friendly regime change, it’s time to connect the dots.
In oligarch-friendly states in North America and the EU, the far-right provides a safety valve against popular unrest. Early on, the Tea Party co-opted language of working-class discontent early on and directed it against minorities, social welfare, and political liberalism, just like Greece’s Golden Dawn opened Greeks-only soup kitchens in the face of the austerity measures that ruined the country. Here in Bulgaria, for instance, the left-most political party is the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), who embraced NATO membership and turned pro-EU following their electoral loss after a US-funded soft coup in 1997. Today, the only political party with a nominally anti-imperialist stance is the fascist party, Ataka, who also profess a socialist welfare platform that the nominally socialist party abandoned long ago. It’s increasingly clear to greater numbers of people that Something’s Wrong, and the world’s super-rich aren’t going to be left unprotected when people’s cities are underwater and the lights have gone out.
The last time capitalism was in such deep shit, mass Communist and Anarchist movements, coupled with the competing example of Soviet socialism, forced concessions from the elites that led to decades of liberal programs for at least white people. Having ground most resistance into dust through things like COINTELPRO and mass incarceration, and without the Soviet bloc providing “the threat of a good example,” there’s little need to put a velvet glove on the iron fist.
So now, it’s a rollback of social welfare, more austerity measures, and the Third-Worldization of most of society. For the rich, it’s ever-increasing opulence and retrenchment; protected by gated communities, mercenary armies, and the full, militarized response of an unfettered state. They know it’ll get worse, and they don’t care—they read the same articles about income inequality and climate change that we do. In the meantime, they’re practicing shutting down cities, like Chicago during the 2012 NATO summit, Boston after the marathon bombing, or Ferguson today. Alongside all this, they have confidence in their propaganda apparatus.
A millionaire media celebrity like Bill Maher is the public face of a conglomerate worth 11 or 12 figures. The sorts of oligarchs with whom Maher is on a first-name basis not only fund regime change around the world, but are the true power served by the increasingly authoritarian—even fascist—governments of the West. Any person who wrings their hands over Our Endangered Values, unless their targets are our elites; is full of shit, a fascist propagandist, or both.