Sheldon Wolin: Political Giant Dead At Ninety-Three – Chris Hedges

Sheldon Wolin, our most important contemporary political theorist, died Oct. 21 at the age of 93.

Sheldon Wolin

In his books “Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism” and “Politics and Vision,” a massive survey of Western political thought that his former student Cornel West calls “magisterial,” Wolin lays bare the realities of our bankrupt democracy, the causes behind the decline of American empire and the rise of a new and terrifying configuration of corporate power he calls “inverted totalitarianism.

Wendy Brown, a political science professor at UC Berkeley and another former student of Wolin’s, said in an email to me: “Resisting the monopolies on left theory by Marxism and on democratic theory by liberalism, Wolin developed a distinctive—even distinctively American—analysis of the political present and of radical democratic possibilities. He was especially prescient in theorizing the heavy statism forging what we now call neoliberalism, and in revealing the novel fusions of economic with political power that he took to be poisoning democracy at its root.

Wolin throughout his scholarship charted the devolution of American democracy and in his last book, “Democracy Incorporated,” details our peculiar form of corporate totalitarianism. “One cannot point to any national institution[s] that can accurately be described as democratic,” he writes in that book, “surely not in the highly managed, money-saturated elections, the lobby-infested Congress, the imperial presidency, the class-biased judicial and penal system, or, least of all, the media.”

Inverted totalitarianism is different from classical forms of totalitarianism. It does not find its expression in a demagogue or charismatic leader but in the faceless anonymity of the corporate state. Our inverted totalitarianism pays outward fealty to the facade of electoral politics, the Constitution, civil liberties, freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary, and the iconography, traditions and language of American patriotism, but it has effectively seized all of the mechanisms of power to render the citizen impotent

“Unlike the Nazis, who made life uncertain for the wealthy and privileged while providing social programs for the working class and poor, inverted totalitarianism exploits the poor, reducing or weakening health programs and social services, regimenting mass education for an insecure workforce threatened by the importation of low-wage workers,” Wolin writes. “Employment in a high-tech, volatile, and globalized economy is normally as precarious as during an old-fashioned depression. The result is that citizenship, or what remains of it, is practiced amidst a continuing state of worry. Hobbes had it right: when citizens are insecure and at the same time driven by competitive aspirations, they yearn for political stability rather than civic engagement, protection rather than political involvement.”

Inverted totalitarianism, Wolin said when we met at his home in Salem, Ore., in 2014 to film a nearly three-hour interview, constantly “projects power upwards.” It is “the antithesis of constitutional power.” It is designed to create instability to keep a citizenry off balance and passive.

He writes, “Downsizing, reorganization, bubbles bursting, unions busted, quickly outdated skills, and transfer of jobs abroad create not just fear but an economy of fear, a system of control whose power feeds on uncertainty, yet a system that, according to its analysts, is eminently rational.

Inverted totalitarianism also “perpetuates politics all the time,” Wolin said when we spoke, “but a politics that is not political.” The endless and extravagant election cycles, he said, are an example of politics without politics. “Instead of participating in power,” he writes, “the virtual citizen is invited to have ‘opinions’: measurable responses to questions predesigned to elicit them.”

Political campaigns rarely discuss substantive issues. They center on manufactured political personalities, empty rhetoric, sophisticated public relations, slick advertising, propaganda and the constant use of focus groups and opinion polls to loop back to voters what they want to hear. Money has effectively replaced the vote. Every current presidential candidate—including Bernie Sanders—understands, to use Wolin’s words, that “the subject of empire is taboo in electoral debates.” The citizen is irrelevant. He or she is nothing more than a spectator, allowed to vote and then forgotten once the carnival of elections ends and corporations and their lobbyists get back to the business of ruling.

“If the main purpose of elections is to serve up pliant legislators for lobbyists to shape, such a system deserves to be called ‘misrepresentative or clientry government,’ ” Wolin writes. “It is, at one and the same time, a powerful contributing factor to the depoliticization of the citizenry, as well as reason for characterizing the system as one of antidemocracy.”

The result, he writes, is that the public is “denied the use of state power.” Wolin deplores the trivialization of political discourse, a tactic used to leave the public fragmented, antagonistic and emotionally charged while leaving corporate power and empire unchallenged.

“Cultural wars might seem an indication of strong political involvements,” he writes. “Actually they are a substitute. The notoriety they receive from the media and from politicians eager to take firm stands on nonsubstantive issues serves to distract attention and contribute to a cant politics of the inconsequential.

“The ruling groups can now operate on the assumption that they don’t need the traditional notion of something called a public in the broad sense of a coherent whole,” he said in our meeting. “They now have the tools to deal with the very disparities and differences that they have themselves helped to create. It’s a game in which you manage to undermine the cohesiveness that the public requires if they [the public] are to be politically effective. And at the same time, you create these different, distinct groups that inevitably find themselves in tension or at odds or in competition with other groups, so that it becomes more of a melee than it does become a way of fashioning majorities.”

In classical totalitarian regimes, such as those of Nazi fascism or Soviet communism, economics was subordinate to politics. But “under inverted totalitarianism the reverse is true,” Wolin writes. “Economics dominates politics—and with that domination comes different forms of ruthlessness.

He continues: “The United States has become the showcase of how democracy can be managed without appearing to be suppressed.”

The corporate state, Wolin told me, is “legitimated by elections it controls.” To extinguish democracy, it rewrites and distorts laws and legislation that once protected democracy. Basic rights are, in essence, revoked by judicial and legislative fiat. Courts and legislative bodies, in the service of corporate power, reinterpret laws to strip them of their original meaning in order to strengthen corporate control and abolish corporate oversight.

He writes: “Why negate a constitution, as the Nazis did, if it is possible simultaneously to exploit porosity and legitimate power by means of judicial interpretations that declare huge campaign contributions to be protected speech under the First Amendment, or that treat heavily financed and organized lobbying by large corporations as a simple application of the people’s right to petition their government?”

Our system of inverted totalitarianism will avoid harsh and violent measures of control “as long as … dissent remains ineffectual,” he told me. “The government does not need to stamp out dissent. The uniformity of imposed public opinion through the corporate media does a very effective job.”

And the elites, especially the intellectual class, have been bought off. “Through a combination of governmental contracts, corporate and foundation funds, joint projects involving university and corporate researchers, and wealthy individual donors, universities (especially so-called research universities), intellectuals, scholars, and researchers have been seamlessly integrated into the system,” Wolin writes. “No books burned, no refugee Einsteins.”

But, he warns, should the population—steadily stripped of its most basic rights, including the right to privacy, and increasingly impoverished and bereft of hope—become restive, inverted totalitarianism will become as brutal and violent as past totalitarian states. “The war on terrorism, with its accompanying emphasis upon ‘homeland security,’ presumes that state power, now inflated by doctrines of preemptive war and released from treaty obligations and the potential constraints of international judicial bodies, can turn inwards,” he writes, “confident that in its domestic pursuit of terrorists the powers it claimed, like the powers projected abroad, would be measured, not by ordinary constitutional standards, but by the shadowy and ubiquitous character of terrorism as officially defined.”

The indiscriminate police violence in poor communities of color is an example of the ability of the corporate state to “legally” harass and kill citizens with impunity. The cruder forms of control—from militarized police to wholesale surveillance, as well as police serving as judge, jury and executioner, now a reality for the underclass—will become a reality for all of us should we begin to resist the continued funneling of power and wealth upward. We are tolerated as citizens, Wolin warns, only as long as we participate in the illusion of a participatory democracy. The moment we rebel and refuse to take part in the illusion, the face of inverted totalitarianism will look like the face of past systems of totalitarianism.

“The significance of the African-American prison population is political,” he writes. “What is notable about the African-American population generally is that it is highly sophisticated politically and by far the one group that throughout the twentieth century kept alive a spirit of resistance and rebelliousness. In that context, criminal justice is as much a strategy of political neutralization as it is a channel of instinctive racism.”

In his writings, Wolin expresses consternation for a population severed from print and the nuanced world of ideas. He sees cinema, like television, as “tyrannical” because of its ability to “block out, eliminate whatever might introduce qualification, ambiguity, or dialogue.” He rails against what he calls a “monochromatic media” with corporate-approved pundits used to identify “the problem and its parameters, creating a box that dissenters struggle vainly to elude. The critic who insists on changing the context is dismissed as irrelevant, extremist, ‘the Left’—or ignored altogether.”

The constant dissemination of illusions permits myth rather than reality to dominate the decisions of the power elites. And when myth dominates, disaster descends upon the empire, as 14 years of futile war in the Middle East and our failure to react to climate change illustrate. Wolin writes

When myth begins to govern decision-makers in a world where ambiguity and stubborn facts abound, the result is a disconnect between the actors and the reality. They convince themselves that the forces of darkness possess weapons of mass destruction and nuclear capabilities: that their own nation is privileged by a god who inspired the Founding Fathers and the writing of the nation’s constitution; and that a class structure of great and stubborn inequalities does not exist. A grim but joyous few see portents of a world that is living out “the last days.”

Wolin was a bombardier and a navigator on a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber in the South Pacific in World War II. He flew 51 combat missions. The planes had crews of up to 10. From Guadalcanal, he advanced with American forces as they captured islands in the Pacific. During the campaign the military high command decided to direct the B-24 bombers—which were huge and difficult to fly in addition to having little maneuverability—against Japanese ships, a tactic that saw tremendous losses of planes and American lives. The use of the B-24, nicknamed “the flying boxcar” and “the flying coffin,” to attack warships bristling with antiaircraft guns exposed for Wolin the callousness of military commanders who blithely sacrificed their air crews and war machines in schemes that offered little chance of success.

“It was terrible,” he said of the orders to bomb ships. “We received awful losses from that, because these big, lumbering aircraft, particularly flying low trying to hit the Japanese navy—and we lost countless people in it, countless.

“We had quite a few psychological casualties … men, boys, who just couldn’t take it anymore,” he said, “just couldn’t stand the strain of getting up at 5 in the morning and proceeding to get into these aircraft and go and getting shot at for a while and coming back to rest for another day.”

Wolin saw the militarists and the corporatists, who formed an unholy coalition to orchestrate the rise of a global American empire after the war, as the forces that extinguished American democracy. He called inverted totalitarianism “the true face of Superpower.” These war profiteers and militarists, advocating the doctrine of total war during the Cold War, bled the country of resources. They also worked in tandem to dismantle popular institutions and organizations such as labor unions to politically disempower and impoverish workers. They “normalized” war. And Wolin warns that, as in all empires, they eventually will be “eviscerated by their own expansionism.” There will never be a return to democracy, he cautions, until the unchecked power of the militarists and corporatists is dramatically curtailed. A war state cannot be a democratic state

Wolin writes: National defense was declared inseparable from a strong economy. The fixation upon mobilization and rearmament inspired the gradual disappearance from the national political agenda of the regulation and control of corporations. The defender of the free world needed the power of the globalizing, expanding corporation, not an economy hampered by “trust busting.” Moreover, since the enemy was rabidly anticapitalist, every measure that strengthened capitalism was a blow against the enemy. Once the battle lines between communism and the “free society” were drawn, the economy became untouchable for purposes other than “strengthening” capitalism. The ultimate merger would be between capitalism and democracy. Once the identity and security of democracy were successfully identified with the Cold War and with the methods for waging it, the stage was set for the intimidation of most politics left or right.

The result is a nation dedicated almost exclusively to waging war

“When a constitutionally limited government utilizes weapons of horrendous destructive power, subsidizes their development, and becomes the world’s largest arms dealer,” Wolin writes, “the Constitution is conscripted to serve as power’s apprentice rather than its conscience.

He goes on: That the patriotic citizen unswervingly supports the military and its huge budget means that conservatives have succeeded in persuading the public that the military is distinct from government. Thus the most substantial element of state power is removed from public debate. Similarly in his/her new status as imperial citizen the believer remains contemptuous of bureaucracy yet does not hesitate to obey the directives issued by the Department of Homeland Security, the largest and most intrusive governmental department in the history of the nation. Identification with militarism and patriotism, along with the images of American might projected by the media, serves to make the individual citizen feel stronger, thereby compensating for the feelings of weakness visited by the economy upon an overworked, exhausted, and insecure labor force. For its antipolitics inverted totalitarianism requires believers, patriots, and nonunion “guest workers.

Sheldon Wolin was often considered an outcast among contemporary political theorists whose concentration on quantitative analysis and behaviorialism led them to eschew the examination of broad political theory and ideas. Wolin insisted that philosophy, even that written by the ancient Greeks, was not a dead relic but a vital tool to examine and challenge the assumptions and ideologies of contemporary systems of power and political thought. Political theory, he argued, was “primarily a civic and secondarily an academic activity.” It had a role “not just as an historical discipline that dealt with the critical examination of idea systems,” he told me, but as a force “in helping to fashion public policies and governmental directions, and above all civic education, in a way that would further … the goals of a more democratic, more egalitarian, more educated society.” His 1969 essay “Political Theory as a Vocation” argued for this imperative and chastised fellow academics who focused their work on data collection and academic minutiae. He writes, with his usual lucidity and literary flourishes, in that essay:

In a fundamental sense, our world has become as perhaps no previous world has, the product of design, the product of theories about human structures deliberately created rather than historically articulated. But in another sense, the embodiment of theory in the world has resulted in a world impervious to theory. The giant, routinized structures defy fundamental alteration and, at the same time, display an unchallengeable legitimacy, for the rational, scientific, and technological principles on which they are based seem in perfect accord with an age committed to science, rationalism and technology. Above all, it is a world which appears to have rendered epic theory superfluous. Theory, as Hegel had foreseen, must take the form of “explanation.” Truly, it seems to be the age when Minerva’s owl has taken flight.

Wolin’s 1960 masterpiece “Politics and Vision,” subtitled “Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought,” drew on a vast array of political theorists and philosophers including Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Immanuel Kant, John Locke, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Thomas Hobbes, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Max Weber, John Dewey and Hannah Arendt to reflect back to us our political and cultural reality. His task, he stated at the end of the book, was, “in the era of Superpower,” to “nurture the civic consciousness of the society.” The imperative to amplify and protect democratic traditions from the contemporary forces that sought to destroy them permeated all of his work, including his books “Hobbes and the Epic Tradition of Political Theory” and “Tocqueville Between Two Worlds: The Making of a Political and Theoretical Life.”

Wolin’s magnificence as a scholar was matched by his magnificence as a human being. He stood with students at UC Berkeley, where he taught, to support the Free Speech Movement and wrote passionately in its defense. Many of these essays were published in “The Berkeley Rebellion and Beyond: Essays on Politics and Education in the Technological Society.” Later, as a professor at Princeton University, he was one of a handful of faculty members who joined students to call for divestment of investments in apartheid South Africa. He once accompanied students to present the case to Princeton alumni. “I’ve never been jeered quite so roundly,” he said. “Some of them called me [a] 50-year-old … sophomore and that kind of thing.”

From 1981 to 1983, Wolin published Democracy: A Journal of Political Renewal and Radical Change. In its pages he and other writers called out the con game of neoliberalism, the danger of empire, the rise of unchecked corporate power and the erosion of democratic institutions and ideals. The journal swiftly made him a pariah within the politics department at Princeton.

“I remember once when I was up editing that journal, I left a copy of it on the table in the faculty room hoping that somebody would read it and comment,” he said. “I never heard a word. And during all the time I was there and doing Democracy, I never had one colleague come up to me and either say something positive or even negative about it. Just absolute silence.”

Max Weber, whom Wolin called “the greatest of all sociologists,” argues in his essay “Politics as a Vocation” that those who dedicate their lives to striving for justice in the modern political arena are like the classical heroes who can never overcome what the ancient Greeks called fortuna. These heroes, Wolin writes in “Politics and Vision,” rise up nevertheless “to heights of moral passion and grandeur, harried by a deep sense of responsibility.” Yet, Wolin goes on, “at bottom, [the contemporary hero] is a figure as futile and pathetic as his classical counterpart. The fate of the classical hero was that he could never overcome contingency or fortuna; the special irony of the modern hero is that he struggles in a world where contingency has been routed by bureaucratized procedures and nothing remains for the hero to contend against. Weber’s political leader is rendered superfluous by the very bureaucratic world that Weber discovered: even charisma has been bureaucratized. We are left with the ambiguity of the political man fired by deep passion—‘to be passionate, ira et studium, is … the element of the political leader’—but facing the impersonal world of bureaucracy which lives by the passionless principle that Weber frequently cited, sine ira et studio, ‘without scorn or bias.’ ”

Wolin writes that even when faced with certain defeat, all of us are called to the “awful responsibility” of the fight for justice, equality and liberty.

“You don’t win,” Wolin said at the end of our talk. “Or you win rarely. And if you win, it’s often for a very short time. That’s why politics is a vocation for Weber. It’s not an occasional undertaking that we assume every two years or every four years when there’s an election. It’s a constant occupation and preoccupation. And the problem, as Weber saw it, was to understand it not as a partisan kind of education in the politicians or political party sense, but as in the broad understanding of what political life should be and what is required to make it sustainable. He’s calling for a certain kind of understanding that’s very different from what we think about when we associate political understanding with how do you vote or what party do you support or what cause do you support. Weber’s asking us to step back and say what kind of political order, and the values associated with it that it promotes, are we willing to really give a lot for, including sacrifice.”

Wolin embodied the qualities Weber ascribes to the hero. He struggled against forces he knew he could not vanquish. He never wavered in the fight as an intellectual and, more important, in the fight as a citizen. He was one of the first to explain to us the transformation of our capitalist democracy into a new species of totalitarianism. He warned us of the consequences of unbridled empire or superpower. He called on us to rise up and resist. His “Democracy Incorporated” was ignored by every major newspaper and journal in the country. This did not surprise him. He knew his power. So did his enemies. All his fears for the nation have come to pass. A corporate monstrosity rules us. If we held up a scorecard we would have to say Wolin lost, but we would also have to acknowledge the integrity, brilliance, courage and nobility of his life. More

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By Dusty Hinz

Sheldon Wolin passed away just under two weeks ago at the age of 93. He was an incredibly important thinker for our times. His book, “Democracy Incorporated”, is a must-read as far as I am concerned. In it he lays out his critique of contemporary America and defines it as an “inverted totalitarian” society, in which politics have become subservient to economics.

If you can't read the book, read this article, if you can't read the article, just read these quotes:

“Inverted totalitarianism is different from classical forms of totalitarianism. It does not find its expression in a demagogue or charismatic leader but in the faceless anonymity of the corporate state. Our inverted totalitarianism pays outward fealty to the facade of electoral politics, the Constitution, civil liberties, freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary, and the iconography, traditions and language of American patriotism, but it has effectively seized all of the mechanisms of power to render the citizen impotent.”

“In classical totalitarian regimes, such as those of Nazi fascism or Soviet communism, economics was subordinate to politics. But “under inverted totalitarianism the reverse is true,” Wolin writes. “Economics dominates politics—and with that domination comes different forms of ruthlessness.”

He continues: “The United States has become the showcase of how democracy can be managed without appearing to be suppressed.”

The corporate state, Wolin told me, is “legitimated by elections it controls.” To extinguish democracy, it rewrites and distorts laws and legislation that once protected democracy. Basic rights are, in essence, revoked by judicial and legislative fiat. Courts and legislative bodies, in the service of corporate power, reinterpret laws to strip them of their original meaning in order to strengthen corporate control and abolish corporate oversight.

He writes: “Why negate a constitution, as the Nazis did, if it is possible simultaneously to exploit porosity and legitimate power by means of judicial interpretations that declare huge campaign contributions to be protected speech under the First Amendment, or that treat heavily financed and organized lobbying by large corporations as a simple application of the people’s right to petition their government?”

Our system of inverted totalitarianism will avoid harsh and violent measures of control “as long as … dissent remains ineffectual,” he told me. “The government does not need to stamp out dissent. The uniformity of imposed public opinion through the corporate media does a very effective job.””

 

Hope, Dear, Debt and Paranoia – By Albert Bates

Hope, fear, debt and paranoia have been recurrent themes running through our past month as we traversed the northwest corner of the European continent through Iceland, Britain and Denmark.

Iceland is the country that told the world its bankers are not too big to jail and it will not be blackmailed by London, Bonn, or the European central banks. It is still taken to the woodshed regularly and reminded who is in charge. Icelanders are not free to leave their country or to take money with them if they are allowed to go.
Britain is Europe's bad boy, master of every latest Ponzi scheme and constantly one step ahead of collapse, eking astonishing profits as all about her topple and fall. Denmark is a dreamweaver, whose sheer powers of imagineering seem to emanate an aura that can warp reality. With nothing but fairy dust to back its notes and debts, it is poised to test the durability of its famed social capital when placed in the vice grip of open imigration. Like many former bastions of European liberalism, it has taken a hard swing to the right and is getting set for the clown show that follows.
The United States is far along down the circus trail, having starved its science, educational and social programs for decades while feeding its population a steady diet of numbing pharmaceuticals, mind-rotting television, high fructose corn syrup and GMOs, until they can be readily induced in their coma to vote against their own interests, over and over, producing a government of popular lunacy — clownocracy — a Mad Hatter's Tea Party overseen by Donald Trump, as Queen of Hearts; “a sort of embodiment of ungovernable passion – a blind and aimless Fury” (description by Lewis Carroll).
Debt is a theft of the options of future generations. To escape debt and claw their way back from penury people will rape, plunder and pillage every last sacred resource, leaving not an inheritance but a ruin. Cascading debt may sweep much of civilization away, perhaps in Jubilee, but the damage will have been done to foundations — and be visited as ecosystem death. Every dollar that cannot possibly be repaid in sweat and hours becomes a drain on Earth's operating system. We grew giddy wealthy on our energy slaves. Don't look now, but they just left and winter is coming.
Obstruction is an occupational hazard we accept because we are in the business of bringing hope, otherwise labeled permaculture, or ecovillage, but we are frequently obstructed and overpowered by those other three elements — fear, debt and paranoia. From time to time we break through enough to peer over the horizon and see what might yet be.
Fear and paranoia are what drive the security state apparatus we encounter most closely and personally when we stand in long lines at airports and then let some gentleman we have only just met fondle our genitals. Of course, we could avoid having our genitals fondled if we would agree to placing ourselves in front of his death ray for a few milliseconds. We know that a few milliseconds won't kill us on the spot but its like buying a ticket in the cancer lottery, and we go through airports often so if we didn't do this fondling ritual we might soon have a shoebox full of such raffle tickets, and who knows? We might win.
Research suggests that anywhere from six to 100 U.S. airline passengers each year may be getting cancer from the machines. Still, any time you opt out, some brainwashed TSA officer will try to persuade you that scanners are “safe,” or equal to “less than three minutes of air travel,” glossing over the fact that even the lowest doses of ionizing radiation — the kind beamed directly at the body by the scanners and qualitatively not much different in the non-ionizing radiation of millimeter wave devices — will increase your lifetime risk of cancer and inherited damage to your offspring, increasing your and their susceptibility to hundreds of genetically related diseases and disabilities.
It is refreshing to go through airports in Europe and not have to go through these machines because they are banned in Europe and would have been banned in the United States had the scientific or medical community made the call. As it was, the call was made by apparatchiks who skipped the legally required public comment period before deploying the scanners, and bypassed the Food and Drug Administration by waving their Patriot Act, and then, in defending these cruel devices, relied on a small body of unpublished research to insist the machines were safe, ignoring contrary opinions from U.S. and European authorities that recommended precautions, especially for pregnant women. Rapiscan employed Chertoff Group, founded by Homeland Security Nomenklatura Michael Chertoff, to make sure the government worked for them. More

It’s time to talk about what’s next

http://youtu.be/d6z4yDu3gco

It’s time to talk about what’s next.”

This statement also applies to the Cayman Islands, in fact is is more crucial to a Small Island Developing States (SIDS) than anywhere else. “It is time for Caymanians (Americans) to think boldly about… what it will take to move our country to a very different place, one where outcomes that are truly sustainable, equitable, and democratic are commonplace.’

Caymanians ask yourselves

‘Do we want cheaper energy generated by solar and wind’?

Ask ‘how will climate change affect us?’

Ask ‘how will sea level rise affect us?’

Ask ‘how will Cuba opening to US citizens affect us?’

These are questions that very few people or organizations in these islands are asking.

Those are the words of academic and author Gar Alperovitz, founder of the Democracy Collaborative, who—alongside veteran environmentalist Gus Speth—this week launched a new initiative called the “Next Systems Project” which seeks to address the interrelated threats of financial inequality, planetary climate disruption, and money-saturated democracies by advocating for deep, heretofore radical transformations of the current systems that govern the world’s economies, energy systems, and political institutions.

The open source revolution is coming and it will conquer the 1% – ex CIA spy

Robert David Steele, former Marine, CIA case officer, and US co-founder of the US Marine Corps intelligence activity, is a man on a mission. But it's a mission that frightens the US intelligence establishment to its core.


With 18 years experience working across the US intelligence community, followed by 20 more years in commercial intelligence and training, Steele's exemplary career has spanned almost all areas of both the clandestine world.

Steele started off as a Marine Corps infantry and intelligence officer. After four years on active duty, he joined the CIA for about a decade before co-founding the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity, where he was deputy director. Widely recognised as the leader of the Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) paradigm, Steele went on to write the handbooks on OSINT for NATO, the US Defense Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Special Operations Forces. In passing, he personally trained 7,500 officers from over 66 countries.

In 1992, despite opposition from the CIA, he obtained Marine Corps permission to organise a landmark international conference on open source intelligence – the paradigm of deriving information to support policy decisions not through secret activities, but from open public sources available to all. The conference was such a success it brought in over 620 attendees from the intelligence world.

But the CIA wasn't happy, and ensured that Steele was prohibited from running a second conference. The clash prompted him to resign from his position as second-ranking civilian in Marine Corps intelligence, and pursue the open source paradigm elsewhere. He went on to found and head up the Open Source Solutions Network Inc. and later the non-profit Earth Intelligence Network which runs the Public Intelligence Blog.

I first came across Steele when I discovered his Amazon review of my third book, The War on Truth: 9/11, Disinformation and the Anatomy of Terrorism. A voracious reader, Steele is the number 1 Amazon reviewer for non-fiction across 98 categories. He also reviewed my latest book, A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilization, but told me I'd overlooked an important early work – 'A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, Report of the UN High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change.'

Last month, Steele presented a startling paper at the Libtech conference in New York, sponsored by the Internet Society and Reclaim. Drawing on principles set out in his latest book, The Open-Source Everything Manifesto: Transparency, Truth and Trust, he told the audience that all the major preconditions for revolution – set out in his 1976 graduate thesis – were now present in the United States and Britain.

Steele's book is a must-read, a powerful yet still pragmatic roadmap to a new civilisational paradigm that simultaneously offers a trenchant, unrelenting critique of the prevailing global order. His interdisciplinary 'whole systems' approach dramatically connects up the increasing corruption, inefficiency and unaccountability of the intelligence system and its political and financial masters with escalating inequalities and environmental crises. But he also offers a comprehensive vision of hope that activist networks like Reclaim are implementing today.

“We are at the end of a five-thousand-year-plus historical process during which human society grew in scale while it abandoned the early indigenous wisdom councils and communal decision-making,” he writes in The Open Source Everything Manifesto. “Power was centralised in the hands of increasingly specialised 'elites' and 'experts' who not only failed to achieve all they promised but used secrecy and the control of information to deceive the public into allowing them to retain power over community resources that they ultimately looted.”

Today's capitalism, he argues, is inherently predatory and destructive:

“Over the course of the last centuries, the commons was fenced, and everything from agriculture to water was commoditised without regard to the true cost in non-renewable resources. Human beings, who had spent centuries evolving away from slavery, were re-commoditised by the Industrial Era.”

Open source everything, in this context, offers us the chance to build on what we've learned through industrialisation, to learn from our mistakes, and catalyse the re-opening of the commons, in the process breaking the grip of defunct power structures and enabling the possibility of prosperity for all.

“Sharing, not secrecy, is the means by which we realise such a lofty destiny as well as create infinite wealth. The wealth of networks, the wealth of knowledge, revolutionary wealth – all can create a nonzero win-win Earth that works for one hundred percent of humanity. This is the 'utopia' that Buckminster Fuller foresaw, now within our reach.”

The goal, he concludes, is to reject:


“… concentrated illicitly aggregated and largely phantom wealth in favor of community wealth defined by community knowledge, community sharing of information, and community definition of truth derived in transparency and authenticity, the latter being the ultimate arbiter of shared wealth.”

Despite this unabashedly radical vision, Steele is hugely respected by senior military intelligence experts across the world. As a researcher at the US Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute, he has authored several monographs advocating the need for open source methods to transform the craft of intelligence. He has lectured to the US State Department and Department of Homeland Security as well as National Security Councils in various countries, and his new book has received accolades from senior intelligence officials across multiple countries including France and Turkey.

Yet he remains an outspoken critic of US intelligence practices and what he sees as their integral role in aggravating rather than ameliorating the world's greatest threats and challenges.

This week, I had the good fortune of being able to touch base with Steele to dig deeper into his recent analysis of the future of US politics in the context of our accelerating environmental challenges. The first thing I asked him was where he sees things going over the next decade, given his holistic take.

“Properly educated people always appreciate holistic approaches to any challenge. This means that they understand both cause and effect, and intertwined complexities,” he said. “A major part of our problem in the public policy arena is the decline in intelligence with integrity among key politicians and staff at the same time that think tanks and universities and non-governmental organisations have also suffered a similar intellectual diminishment.

“My early graduate education was in the 1970's when Limits to Growth and World Federalism were the rage. Both sought to achieve an over-view of systemic challenges, but both also suffered from the myth of top-down hubris. What was clear in the 1970s, that has been obscured by political and financial treason in the past half-century, is that everything is connected – what we do in the way of paving over wetlands, or in poisoning ground water 'inadvertently' because of our reliance on pesticides and fertilisers that are not subject to the integrity of the 'Precautionary Principle,' ultimately leads to climate catastrophes that are acts of man, not acts of god.”

He points me to his tremendous collection of reviews of books on climate change, disease, environmental degradation, peak oil, and water scarcity. “I see five major overlapping threats on the immediate horizon,” he continues. “They are all related: the collapse of complex societies, the acceleration of the Earth's demise with changes that used to take 10,000 years now taking three or less, predatory or shock capitalism and financial crime out of the City of London and Wall Street, and political corruption at scale, to include the west supporting 42 of 44 dictators. We are close to multiple mass catastrophes.”

What about the claim that the US is on the brink of revolution? “Revolution is overthrow – the complete reversal of the status quo ante. We are at the end of centuries of what Lionel Tiger calls 'The Manufacture of Evil,' in which merchant banks led by the City of London have conspired with captive governments to concentrate wealth and commoditise everything including humans. What revolution means in practical terms is that balance has been lost and the status quo ante is unsustainable. There are two 'stops' on greed to the nth degree: the first is the carrying capacity of Earth, and the second is human sensibility. We are now at a point where both stops are activating.”

It's not just the US, he adds. “The preconditions of revolution exist in the UK, and most western countries. The number of active pre-conditions is quite stunning, from elite isolation to concentrated wealth to inadequate socialisation and education, to concentrated land holdings to loss of authority to repression of new technologies especially in relation to energy, to the atrophy of the public sector and spread of corruption, to media dishonesty, to mass unemployment of young men and on and on and on.”

So why isn't it happening yet?

“Preconditions are not the same as precipitants. We are waiting for our Tunisian fruit seller. The public will endure great repression, especially when most media outlets and schools are actively aiding the repressive meme of 'you are helpless, this is the order of things.' When we have a scandal so powerful that it cannot be ignored by the average Briton or American, we will have a revolution that overturns the corrupt political systems in both countries, and perhaps puts many banks out of business. Vaclav Havel calls this 'The Power of the Powerless.' One spark, one massive fire.”

But we need more than revolution, in the sense of overthrow, to effect change, surely. How does your manifesto for 'open source everything' fit into this? “The west has pursued an industrialisation path that allows for the privatisation of wealth from the commons, along with the criminalisation of commons rights of the public, as well as the externalisation of all true costs. Never mind that fracking produces earthquakes and poisons aquifers – corrupt politicians at local, state or province, and national levels are all too happy to take money for looking the other way. Our entire commercial, diplomatic, and informational systems are now cancerous. When trade treaties have secret sections – or are entirely secret – one can be certain the public is being screwed and the secrecy is an attempt to avoid accountability. Secrecy enables corruption. So also does an inattentive public enable corruption.”

Is this a crisis of capitalism, then? Does capitalism need to end for us to resolve these problems? And if so, how? “Predatory capitalism is based on the privatisation of profit and the externalisation of cost. It is an extension of the fencing of the commons, of enclosures, along with the criminalisation of prior common customs and rights. What we need is a system that fully accounts for all costs. Whether we call that capitalism or not is irrelevant to me. But doing so would fundamentally transform the dynamic of present day capitalism, by making capital open source. For example, and as calculated by my colleague JZ Liszkiewicz, a white cotton T-shirt contains roughly 570 gallons of water, 11 to 29 gallons of fuel, and a number of toxins and emissions including pesticides, diesel exhaust, and heavy metals and other volatile compounds – it also generally includes child labor. Accounting for those costs and their real social, human and environmental impacts has totally different implications for how we should organise production and consumption than current predatory capitalism.”

So what exactly do you mean by open source everything? “We have over 5 billion human brains that are the one infinite resource available to us going forward. Crowd-sourcing and cognitive surplus are two terms of art for the changing power dynamic between those at the top that are ignorant and corrupt, and those across the bottom that are attentive and ethical. The open source ecology is made up of a wide range of opens – open farm technology, open source software, open hardware, open networks, open money, open small business technology, open patents – to name just a few. The key point is that they must all develop together, otherwise the existing system will isolate them into ineffectiveness. Open data is largely worthless unless you have open hardware and open software. Open government demands open cloud and open spectrum, or money will dominate feeds and speeds.”

On 1st May, Steele sent an open letter to US vice president Joe Biden requesting him to consider establishing an Open Source Agency that would transform the operation of the intelligence community, dramatically reduce costs, increasing oversight and accountability, while increasing access to the best possible information to support holistic policy-making. To date, he has received no response.

I'm not particularly surprised. Open source everything pretty much undermines everything the national security state stands for. Why bother even asking vice president Biden to consider it? “The national security state is rooted in secrecy as a means of avoiding accountability. My first book, On Intelligence: Spies and Secrecy in an Open World – which by the way had a foreword from Senator David Boren, the immediate past chairman of the Senate Select Committee for Intelligence – made it quite clear that the national security state is an expensive, ineffective monstrosity that is simply not fit for purpose. In that sense, the national security state is it's own worst enemy – it's bound to fail.”

Given his standing as an intelligence expert, Steele's criticisms of US intelligence excesses are beyond scathing – they are damning. “Most of what is produced through secret methods is not actually intelligence at all. It is simply secret information that is, most of the time, rather generic and therefore not actually very useful for making critical decisions at a government level. The National Security Agency (NSA) has not prevented any terrorist incidents. CIA cannot even get the population of Syria correct and provides no intelligence – decision-support – to most cabinet secretaries, assistant secretaries, and department heads. Indeed General Tony Zinni, when he was commander in chief of the US Central Command as it was at war, is on record as saying that he received, 'at best,' a meagre 4% of what he needed to know from secret sources and methods.”

So does open source mean you are calling for abolition of intelligence agencies as we know them, I ask. “I'm a former spy and I believe we still need spies and secrecy, but we need to redirect the vast majority of the funds now spent on secrecy toward savings and narrowly focused endeavors at home. For instance, utterly ruthless counterintelligence against corruption, or horrendous evils like paedophilia.

“Believe it or not, 95% of what we need for ethical evidence-based decision support cannot be obtained through the secret methods of standard intelligence practices. But it can be obtained quite openly and cheaply from academics, civil society, commerce, governments, law enforcement organisations, the media, all militaries, and non-governmental organisations. An Open Source Agency, as I've proposed it, would not just meet 95% of our intelligence requirements, it would do the same at all levels of government and carry over by enriching education, commerce, and research – it would create what I called in 1995 a 'Smart Nation.'

“The whole point of Open Source Everything is to restore public agency. Open Source is the only form of information and information technology that is affordable to the majority, interoperable across all boundaries, and rapidly scalable from local to global without the curse of overhead that proprietary corporations impose.”

It's clear to me that when Steele talks about intelligence as 'decision-support,' he really does intend that we grasp “all information in all languages all the time” – that we do multidisciplinary research spanning centuries into the past as well as into the future. His most intriguing premise is that the 1% are simply not as powerful as they, and we, assume them to be. “The collective buying power of the five billion poor is four times that of the one billion rich according to the late Harvard business thinker Prof C. K. Prahalad – open source everything is about the five billion poor coming together to reclaim their collective wealth and mobilise it to transform their lives. There is zero chance of the revolution being put down. Public agency is emergent, and the ability of the public to literally put any bank or corporation out of business overnight is looming. To paraphrase Abe Lincoln, you cannot screw all of the people all of the time. We're there. All we lack is a major precipitant – our Tunisian fruit seller. When it happens the revolution will be deep and lasting.”

The Arab spring analogy has its negatives. So far, there really isn't much to root for. I want to know what's to stop this revolution from turning into a violent, destructive mess. Steele is characteristically optimistic. “I have struggled with this question. What I see happening is an end to national dictat and the emergence of bottom-up clarity, diversity, integrity, and sustainability. Individual towns across the USA are now nullifying federal and state regulations – for example gag laws on animal cruelty, blanket permissions for fracking. Those such as my colleague Parag Khanna that speak to a new era of city-states are correct in my view. Top down power has failed in a most spectacular manner, and bottom-up consensus power is emergent. 'Not in my neighborhood' is beginning to trump 'Because I say so.' The one unlimited resource we have on the planet is the human brain – the current strategy of 1% capitalism is failing because it is killing the Golden Goose at multiple levels. Unfortunately, the gap between those with money and power and those who actually know what they are talking about has grown catastrophic. The rich are surrounded by sycophants and pretenders whose continued employment demands that they not question the premises. As Larry Summers lectured Elizabeth Warren, 'insiders do not criticise insiders.'”

But how can activists actually start moving toward the open source vision now? “For starters, there are eight 'tribes' that among them can bring together all relevant information: academia, civil society including labor unions and religions, commerce especially small business, government especially local, law enforcement, media, military, and non-government/non-profit. At every level from local to global, across every mission area, we need to create stewardship councils integrating personalities and information from all eight tribes. We don't need to wait around for someone else to get started. All of us who recognise the vitality of this possibility can begin creating these new grassroots structures from the bottom-up, right now.”

So how does open source everything have the potential to 're-engineer the Earth'? For me, this is the most important question, and Steele's answer is inspiring. “Open Source Everything overturns top-down 'because I say so at the point of a gun' power. Open Source Everything makes truth rather than violence the currency of power. Open Source Everything demands that true cost economics and the indigenous concept of 'seventh generation thinking' – how will this affect society 200 years ahead – become central. Most of our problems today can be traced to the ascendance of unilateral militarism, virtual colonialism, and predatory capitalism, all based on force and lies and encroachment on the commons. The national security state works for the City of London and Wall Street – both are about to be toppled by a combination of Eastern alternative banking and alternative international development capabilities, and individuals who recognise that they have the power to pull their money out of the banks and not buy the consumer goods that subsidise corruption and the concentration of wealth. The opportunity to take back the commons for the benefit of humanity as a whole is open – here and now.”

For Steele, the open source revolution is inevitable, simply because the demise of the system presided over by the 1% cannot be stopped – and because the alternatives to reclaiming the commons are too dismal to contemplate. We have no choice but to step up.

“My motto, a play on the CIA motto that is disgraced every day, is 'the truth at any cost lowers all other costs'”, he tells me. “Others wiser than I have pointed out that nature bats last. We are at the end of an era in which lies can be used to steal from the public and the commons. We are at the beginning of an era in which truth in public service can restore us all to a state of grace.” More

Please see orginal article for more graphics, charts etc.