Inept Empire

During Obama’s latest address to the nation in which he reminds us that he’s going to keep bombing MENA no matter what we think about it, The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill was busy firing off a flurry of tweets noting some of the omissions and outright lies in the speech. Some of it’s worth reading, but this was the tweet that really caught my attention:

Before Scahill really got started, he offered this increasingly popular vision of the ruling class in the form of Sideshow Bob continually stepping on a rake, seemingly unable to grasp the basic relation of cause and effect. The implication is, of course, that the ruling elite are a bunch of fucking morons. They cause problems with their right hand that they try (and often fail) to solve with their left. They endlessly pursue their most immediate goals without considering the long-term consequences. Given this image, it’s a wonder these people can even get themselves to work in the morning, much less sustain an empire.

But Scahill is hardly alone on the left in making this kind of argument. His colleague at The Intercept, Murtaza Hussain, even offered policy suggestions to our foolish imperial overlords, lest they start another fire they can’t put out:

Rather than reflexively satisfying an emotional need to “do something” in the face of atrocities committed by ISIS against American citizens, a policy of coalition-building across ideological lines could potentially eliminate the group and perhaps begin to heal sectarian divisions in the region. Obama’s speech tonight offers a prime opportunity to articulate a pragmatic, effective strategy. If ISIS is really the apocalyptic threat that U.S. politicians have made it out to be, such pragmatism is absolutely necessary. American policy on this issue has so far been both incomprehensible and counterproductive. But by bringing all major parties to one side against ISIS, something positive may be salvaged from it yet.


These tendencies are further explored in exhaustive detail in this brilliant essay by Patrick Higgins that I suggest you read in full. But, to put it simply, the notion that the ruling elite are so stupid they don’t even know their interests, much less how to go about securing them, is ahistorical, power-serving nonsense. If we just look at recent history in the region, we can see that American power has intervened in and destroyed a number of countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya to name a few), seen the results, and carried on doing it as though all had gone according to plan. I suppose it’s possible they are completely insane, but if we are going to think seriously about the logic of American power and how it gets applied to existing conditions, we should be using the results of previous interventions to inform our thinking in the present. Imperial aggression predictably disrupts all existing order, increases sectarianism, and often fractures the potential of independent development.  If power knows these are predictable consequences of military intervention, and keeps on intervening, we can reasonably assume they are desired outcomes.

Now, of course, the imperialists can’t predict every consequence of their meddling, but I think we can be pretty sure they think military intervention is likely to lead to favorable conditions for penetrating markets and generating profit or they wouldn’t be doing it. American policy is only “incomprehensible” and “counterproductive” if you assume their interests in Iraq and Syria are what they say they are. And how is it possible to view the recent history of Iraq and assume America has any interest whatsoever in making things better there? It’s a commentary on the health of left discourse that these assertions can pass without much protest.

This tendency to assume the world we live in is largely a product of mistakes, instead of conscious state policy is now pretty standard in certain parts of the left. It reminds me of some opponents of the drug war who insist our policies simply aren’t working. Sure, these policies have had catastrophic impacts on communities throughout this country, not to mention the plague of violence it has initiated south of the border, but what exactly makes them mistakes? If you have a power structure that enforces laws for decades that have very little effect on the production, availability, and use of drugs, but has successfully increased the rate of incarceration of nonviolent “offenders” astronomically, perhaps we should be thinking about this problem a bit differently. Is it possible that this is a conscious war being waged on the underclass using drugs as a pretext? A war that power is winning handily, in no small measure because of this fundamental confusion about what we’re actually facing?

Other people have also pointed out the ideological trap of assuming the history of American power is one of destructive mistakes.  This Arthur Silber piece quotes some very insightful thoughts from Robert Higgs on the subject:

 As a general rule for understanding public policies, I insist that there are no persistent “failed” policies. Policies that do not achieve their desired outcomes for the actual powers-that-be are quickly changed. If you want to know why the U.S. policies have been what they have been for the past sixty years, you need only comply with that invaluable rule of inquiry in politics: follow the money. When you do so, I believe you will find U.S. policies in the Middle East to have been wildly successful, so successful that the gains they have produced for the movers and shakers in the petrochemical, financial, and weapons industries (which is approximately to say, for those who have the greatest influence in determining U.S. foreign policies) must surely be counted in the hundreds of billions of dollars. So U.S. soldiers get killed, so Palestinians get insulted, robbed, and confined to a set of squalid concentration areas, so the “peace process” never gets far from square one, etc., etc. – none of this makes the policies failures; these things are all surface froth, costs not borne by the policy makers themselves but by the cannon-fodder masses, the bovine taxpayers at large, and foreigners who count for nothing.

Silber himself adds:

The ruling class has not “lost,” not in Gaza, not in Iraq, not in most of the other many wars of aggression throughout history. To claim that they have is to misapprehend what their interests are, and how those interests are fulfilled. The prospect or, very infrequently, the actuality of large scale public unrest and protest may cause the ruling class to make concessions now and then, concessions specifically designed to ensure future compliance. But except for extraordinarily rare moments of profound historical shift, the ruling class continues in its enjoyment of untold wealth and power, all of which is fed with the blood and suffering of the “ordinary” people.

Maybe I’m overreacting to an offhand tweet, but it was articulated at a time when there’s a lot of acrimonious “infighting” going on, some of it arising from the different ways people act in relation to and think about celebrity lefts. Instead of setting the table myself, I’ll just recommend you read Tarzie’s post here (don’t neglect the comments).

The reason I highlight Scahill’s tweet specifically is that I find it to be a power-serving argument coming from a person who I believe wields a great deal of influence on left politics. It seems to me that most people reading Scahill’s timeline during Obama’s speech would see the majority of his arguments as fierce, well-considered, and principled. I actually agree with some of what he had to say, and generally think he’s as serious a celebrity left as you’re likely to find. But that’s what makes the underlying assumptions about power so toxic: Many people on the left comfortably defer to him on issues of US foreign policy because they’re generally inclined to accept his judgment. In doing so, there’s a danger of not only giving a pass to reactionary ideas, but allowing them to become standardized without much attention.

Others have criticized Scahill for different reasons. Once again, Patrick Higgins offers a wide-ranging essay that, in part, addresses an incident where Scahill threatened to back out of a peace conference if another speaker he vehemently disagreed with about the reality of the war in Syria was to appear as well. Higgins also breaks down the way Scahill responded to his critics on twitter in the wake of that controversy. In another case, Douglas Valentine reviewed the Oscar-nominated documentary Dirty Wars that Scahill co-wrote, co-produced and is featured in as the dominant subject. Valentine has a lot to say about what is and is not in the film, some of which I don’t agree with, but his point regarding the general omission of historical context and the critical role the CIA has played, and continues to play in these shadow wars is hard to ignore. Related: As Tarzie notes here, a feature of the Snowden disclosures, now being published at The Intercept, has been to narrow the focus from the vast, unaccountable surveillance state to one rogue, lawless agency. It’s possible there are good journalistic reasons for narrowing the frame, but people should at least be noticing these tendencies and thinking about them.

I largely came to my own politics through people like Chomsky, Greenwald and Scahill, but I typically don’t think people shed the influence of surrogate thinkers once they’ve become attached. I’ve been told that I spend too much time thinking about celebrity lefts, and often overestimate the influence they have on the way people think. “After all, aren’t there worse people to take aim at? You know, people who are even more prominent, and clearly siding with power in support of further aggression in the region?” I may have made this argument myself a couple of years ago, but I’ve since found a lot of significant ideological differences between myself and team “adversarial,” and given the influence I believe they have on the profile of left politics, I think it’s important for people to identify the weak foundational politics that make them desirable to someone like Omidyar, and point out how those politics function in specific cases.

I have come to find the position occupied by celebrity lefts as simply a fundamental obstruction to more radical thought. The space they occupy doesn’t seem to make room for different ideas, and it serves power by setting the limits of permissible opinion, which is then policed with a great deal of intensity by those who attach themselves to these left luminaries. Seeing the way Glenn Greenwald and his followers responded to legitimate criticism throughout the Snowden spectacle was a good lesson in the way power disciplines those who ask unwelcome questions and refuse to accept imposed narratives.

If we’re going to assume left analysis has any value at all, we should be able to agree that criticism of those who set the coordinates of our discourse, effectively deciding what ideas are privileged and what ideas are marginalized, should be made a priority. These celebrities should be met with a great deal of skepticism, if only for their prominence. Additionally, I think an honest analysis of their propaganda function is crucial in order to develop the strong intellectual self-defenses we need to interpret the world as it actually is. We simply can’t reach sound conclusions otherwise.


It has been pointed out to me on twitter that I never specifically mentioned Israel in this post:

While that’s true, my analysis includes Israel in my condemnations of the empire. Israel is a client state that is crucial to securing the empire’s interests. I also quote two other writers that mention the suffering of the Palestinians and how the conditions in Gaza do not represent a loss for the ruling class. I guess I assumed people would make the connection, but just to clear things up, I’m in no way denying Israel’s role in all this.

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31 Responses to Inept Empire

  1. Tarzie says:

    Great post, Kevin. I like how you weaved things together here. It’s a funny thing about Scahill: having written so much about private contractors, he obviously knows all the interests that thrive on the country’s repeated encounters with the rake. It’s hard to understand the thinking here: is it that he envisions all the profiteers rubbing their hands on the sidelines, waiting for the President and Congress to fuck up *again*? Smedley Butler called bullshiton this in 1935. I feel like Scahill has to know better and is deliberately coloring inside the prescribed lines, but that’s beside the point. The end result is the same.

    I could live a lot more comfortably with Scahill, Greenwald and co, if there were some implicit understanding between people like them, their ardent fans and people like us, that they are tactical allies — useful because they are closer to power than radicals will ever get, but compromised for the same reason. As you suggest above, their “weak foundational politics” are a feature not a bug for the likes of Omidyar. But as you also suggest, they are unwilling to see it that way. Their higher stature is regarded as a measure of their political value, not a measure of the interest wealthy capitalists have taken in them. So the weak foundational politics become the outer limits.

    Lefts and particularly liberals talk a lot about the Overton Window and how right wing extremists move the country’s politics to the right, by making rank-and-file reactionaries look reasonable. It’s not a particularly sound theory, but it’s interesting that its many adherents never propose a similar strategy on the left. To the contrary, nothing seems to get their blood racing quite like administering discipline to people who might yank the window back. From a tactical standpoint, it’s the only area where they seem to know exactly what to do and have any consistent impact. Presumably Omidyar and his ilk appreciate that too.

    • Very well said. I can’t say for sure what accounts for his thinking, although the liberal tendency to seperate private power from state power is ubiquitous. He did mention how this would be a boon to private contractors while he was live tweeting Obama’s speech:

      It is interesting how seamlessly everyone can come together when it’s time to discipline those who won’t respect established lines. Hope to see that change, at least to some degree, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

      • roastyagain says:

        Excellent post, very well broken down. I waiver daily about how mich I think this is consciously coordinated & how much I think it’s just the natural tendency of people that walk the power lines that Scahill & company walk. While I certainky believe that a level of coordination exists, I’m also quite aware how much groupthink itself can do the coordination without any real guidance by power.

        One thing that really struck me about Scahill’s tweets, & continues to strike me across the board, is not just the lack of pushback that you mentioned, but the actual celebration of this shit as wisdom by people I find otherwise very reasonable. It really speaks to sound byte liberalism worming its way into radical spaces when people who in other contexts are perfectly capable of making structural analyses buy this wholesale.

        Again, great stuff man.

        • I struggle with it as well. I generally try to focus on the impact of whatever is being said, but I respect people who dig deep, trying to come to intelligent conclusions about where these things are coming from, using incomplete information. And yea, any remotely critical thing coming from these celebrity left platforms is exalted by those who take them very very seriously. Even tepid criticism of power becomes evidence of their willingness to risk something, I guess because they have something to lose. The idea that they are actually covering for power more so than exposing it is still hard for people to grasp.

          Thanks for the kind words/contribution.

  2. Dirty says:

    Well done. Love the title, great Elliot Smith tune. Look forward to more!

  3. Lorenzo says:

    Really good post on a really dangerous idea. When it comes to the idea that the state somehow keeps misunderstanding its interests and sacrificing long-term peace for short term violence, there’s a quote from the COINTELPRO documents that I find really revealing. From an FBI memorandum on black nationalist groups, under “Goals,” the document explains that “[f]or maximum effectiveness of the Counterintelligence Program, and to prevent wasted effort, long-range goals are being set,” before enumerating how the program would destroy the resistance.
    When it comes to maintaining power, a project that’s been pretty damn successful, the state is as efficient as possible, and demonstrates sage long-term wisdom. The War on Drugs is a perfect example–if after 40+ years later, drugs still exist and the carceral state is bigger than ever, reducing drug use and crime probably aren’t the real goals. Empire loves people to think that it’s merely incompetent, rather than actively evil.

    • Indeed it does. Even if one is inclined to give state power the benefit of the doubt, you would think the mere existence of empire would be enough to make them pause and reconsider this argument. Thanks for the resource, I probably should have included more hard evidence of now undisclosed conspiracies that undermine this formulation of power, both in its competency and its objectives. It’s not like the logic has changed much at all.

      I hope someone stops by to defend Scahill’s point, because I just don’t understand how he can be a National Security reporter for this many years, and sincerely believe what was implied in that tweet. I tried asking him to clarify on twitter and he didn’t respond. Anyway, thanks for contributing, I appreciate it.

  4. olaasm says:

    Reblogged this on Anti Social Media and commented:
    Highly Recommended Reading:

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  6. That’s very well and usefully said.

  7. MacCruiskeen says:

    Great post. And, as Lorenzo said, the War on Drugs is a perfect example of their ‘ineptness’.

    Jamey Hecht on the establishment’s most effective thoughtstopper:


    This phrase is among the tireless workhorses of establishment discourse. Without it, disinformation would be much harder than it is. “Conspiracy theory” is a trigger phrase, saturated with intellectual contempt and deeply anti-intellectual resentment. It makes little sense on its own, and while it’s a priceless tool of propaganda, it is worse than useless as an explanatory category.”

  8. haptic says:

    This is great, but allow me to disagree a bit. This is really just notes, because I am thinking about this on the fly and haven’t ever really been forced to develop my ideas on it, which is what your and Patrick’s posts have been doing, so thanks. It may not be internally consistent, but I think it goes somewhere interesting, so bear that in mind.

    I agree with you about Scahill, but I think we need to be very careful about how we do that critique.

    I know there is a desire to say, it’s not complicated! It’s simple! It’s class! It’s empire! It’s right in front of us! It doesn’t even pretend otherwise! I appreciate the need to sweep away postmodern verbiage in order to understand the reality of class relations. I appreciate the need for models that beget action, rather than intellectual pissing matches and stasis. I still think it’s important not to gloss over nuance, if it is available.

    There are a lot of things going on in his tweet: The problem I have with the “stepping on a rake” thing is not really that it posits that the US government is too stupid to avoid stepping on the rake, but that there is an assumption in there that the US government should be wandering around that back yard at all. It feels like critiquing the technique the IDF used to demolish a family home, rather than objecting to the whole thing. It also imports assumptions about what “the US government” as an entity wants to do and where it wants to be with regard to the ME. It seems wrong minded for any number of reasons, and, as you say, indicative of a foundational politics that is not that well worked out.

    I am a little more sympathetic to the “too stupid” proposal than you are, but I think the work it is doing in that tweet is to slip the premise that the US should be involved at all there past the post. I think it’s pretty fair to say that the USG has done an enormous amount of stupid stuff in the ME, stuff that, relative to the intentions and motives of the individual elites who took the decisions, probably were “mistakes” or “backfires”. I think it’s fair to say that the Bush admin knew much more what it was doing in the ME than the Obama admin. The Obama admin seems more anxious about appearances than the Bush admin. The Obama admin genuinely does seem confused about recent events in the ME, but that confusion is more about what its public stance on the ME ought to be, and what it ought to be telling people it’s doing there. I don’t think the military and intelligence bureaucracies which are notionally subject to White House control are nearly as confused about what they are doing, and I think the machinery is probably just operating the way it was built, and the administration is just following it and filling in the gaps. I think the pundits are half right when they descry these patterns, it’s just that what they are talking about is really just detail: it is not really that important. I also think that lots of what is going on in the ME can the unintended side-effect of interference there, or it could be the intended consequence – I think the distinction is more or less immaterial, because empire functions at a higher level of abstraction, where the individual motives and intentions of individual players and groups no longer apply.

    Is empire stupid or is it smart? Surely it is both. Are we really forced to choose between “empire by mistake” and “empire by design” ? Doesn’t that just lead down the road into an argument about motives – good intentions versus bad intentions?

    I am concerned that in the desire to refute the idiotic “kneejerk anticonspiracism” that’s been going around, we run headlong into “kneejerk antianticonspiracism”.

    The motives of individual elites are indeterminate, perhaps even to themselves. But surely your model of how all of this works should accept that while elites as a rule tend to know their own interests and tend to act in them, those interests are not always harmonious with the system they partake in. They can mistakenly judge their own interests, and mistakenly judge how to further their own correctly judged interests. But in general this doesn’t matter and isn’t even interesting, because empire lives a layer up, in the patterns created by all of these different elites interacting. Empire compensates for the mistakes of individuals. Empire has all the cards. We are talking about being in so much more powerful a position that fucking up just means starting again or moving on. There are near-infinite resources to play with.

    Empire doesn’t intend anything, no more than an ecosystem can intend something, but comes out of the activities of the individual organisms which make it up, all of which probably have intentions and interests. Empire cannot make mistakes, because it’s just there and the momentary failures of its constituent individuals and institutions are jettisoned as it finds another way to perpetuate itself. Nature is industrious. The leftovers of its former mistakes can be found doing their work for empire in a different way.

    The same applies to constituent groups. Do we want to say that the CIA never makes “mistakes”? Surely, the CIA fucks up, but the problem with the CIA is that its fuckups are never fuckups for long. Sooner or later, the fuckups will yield interesting new consequences which can be exploited and built upon, so that eventually that fuckup will have been retrospectively very much in the CIA’s interests. These groups are in such a position of power that the threshold for “fuckup” is very high indeed. Losing effective control over Middle East oil in the long term, without any recourse – that would be a fuckup. The Islamic State – even if this was an unforeseen side-effect of empire busywork in Iraq and Syria, does that matter? It doesn’t really, apart from a little bit of bad publicity for the US president. It’s all going to be tremendously useful, and there are plenty of industrious, improvisational minds which will find ways to exploit it, and which will further help empire. Likewise, the US “intelligence community” losing its ability to surveil everyone would be a fuckup. But the Snowden thing, in the long run, is nothing more than a hiccup. For a while there the same crowd was braying about all the “mistakes” the DI and the administration were making. James Clapper lying to Congress, etc. Sure, blunders at the individual level, perhaps, but in the long run, not serious setbacks. If you read the court cases, they are already exploiting the fact that it all happened in extremely insidious ways to justify further secrecy and further surveillance. Historically, it was inevitable, and they’ll come to be glad it happened, because of all the hay they made out of it.

    The US government is not monolithic, either. What is bad for Obama may be good for the CIA. He may make a mistake, while the CIA might rejoice at it. We should tend not to dismiss what look like conspiracy theories, not because we should assume that empire is a fully monolithic, fully conscious network of conspiring people and groups, but because what looks like a conspiracy theory can tend to happen without the need for everyone to be on the same page, or even know they are taking part in something. And we should reject Scahill’s talk of “mistakes”, not because individual actors don’t sometimes make mistakes, but because if empire is a causally important structure in the world, intentionality will only confuse us the way it confuses our understanding of evolution. Scahill’s suggestion asks us to understand the phenomenon of empire not as a massive self-regulating system, but to understand the US government according to pretty much the conventional idea of the US government: as a conscious and cohesive body that intends to and does act as a single entity and in its own interests. We are intended to bless the myths of liberal democracy, and to think the causally efficacious part of empire is the part build around the US constitutional scaffold, and not the networks of networks that have accreted for centuries.

    If human beings can evolve from microscopic organisms without the intervention of a conscious creator, or any overarching intentionality or agency, US empire can be an operative phenomenon without the need to defend full-throated “conspiracism.” I still think it is important to push back against the anti-conspiracists, because they are erasing a whole lot of fully intentional activity by conspiring elites, and some intentionality is necessary to make capitalism work, although it need only be local and short term. But I also think the reason anti-conspiracists are being stupid is they are supposing that highly complicated and detailed systems cannot function without an overarching and fully voluntary intelligence, and that flies in the face of the fact that everyone exists and is able to have this conversation.

    • Thanks for stopping by, I always like your contributions on Tarzie’s blog. I don’t have much time to write tonight, but I just want to let you know that I appreciate the counter and I’ll try my best to respond after I’ve considered your points a bit more.

      • haptic says:


        I greatly enjoy Tarzie’s blog. Smashing community there, and Tarzie linking to your blog is the main reason I am here. I find your post, and Patrick’s, fascinating. I think you are on to a real issue.

        Reading over my post now, I feel I haven’t really said what I wanted to say. This is a tricky topic to get right. I want to agree with your position 100%, not least because I think the anti-conspiracism about is pernicious in the extreme, especially in the left.

        Nevertheless, I think there are conspiracies, which have the explicit articulable and conscious commitment of conspirators, and then I think there are larger systematic phenomena which do not require explicit conscious commitment on the part of their participants. I think class phenomena are of the latter kind, and I think empire is too. That is not to say that when an individual imperialist conspiracy (say, the arrangement for the overthrow of a leftist government in Latin America) is carried out, it is not done with the full and conscious conspiracy of its conspirators. Nor that some of its conspirators do not subscribe to a grand strategy that involves US domination of the hemisphere, and prescribes such actions.

        • Sorry for the pause and thanks again for leaving such interesting comments.

          Just to be clear, I’m not in any way trying to suggest the ruling class is omniscient, or that they don’t make mistakes. It doesn’t matter how much history one studies/how deeply one understands existing conditions, it’s just not possible to know exactly how events with so many moving parts are going to play out. I’m simply arguing the ruling class exists and they know what they are trying to accomplish in the world. And I think that as a class, they force intervention in places in order to create conditions they deem favorable to sustaining empire. So I think they know that when they bomb or invade another country, it’s going to initiate a reaction. They may not know exactly what that reaction is going to be, but, as you said, they don’t need to. I still believe they put a great deal of thought into the specific moves they make in order to maximize the utility of their power, but even if their estimates are off, they can use all their resources to opportunistically capitalize on subsequent developments.

          Let’s take a case like Vietnam. I’m sure American power made a ton of mistakes there. They almost certainly underestimated the strength/resolve of the resistance and what it would take to essentially recolonize Vietnam. But I believe they accomplished their most fundamental goal in devastating the country and erasing any chance it had of functioning as a model of independent development elsewhere. That said, I can’t look at the results of the war and say they got everything, or even most of what they wanted. And I certainly don’t deny the potential efficacy of resistance to imperialism. If I thought empire couldn’t be meaningfully resisted in any way, then I think I would be far less inclined to spend time thinking about these things, much less writing about them. Still, I think the ruling class have generally been successful in their long-term projects, or the proportions of power would be different.

          On a separate note, I don’t think this post really put forth a specific defense of conspiracy theorizing. I am basically disputing the kind of conclusions people like Scahill come to when they assume an understanding of power that I don’t think corresponds with historical evidence. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think I’m speculating when I assert the ruling class knows its interests and pursues them relentlessly.

          As I mentioned in my response to Roasty, I’m generally more interested in how arguments like Scahill’s shape our discourse/politics than speculating in detail on conspiracies. That said, I generally agree with Patrick’s thoughts here:

          “People are understandably skeptical about inductive reasoning, and, to be fair, it can go horribly wrong. Yet at the same time, systemic critique would be impossible without inductive reasoning, or reaching general conclusions from series of specific observations. In this sense, the ruling class’ treatment of all inductive reasoning as equally wrong is an attack on holistic critique itself. Without holistic critique, or the attempt to understand the world’s components as they relate to each other as well as how they interlock within a larger whole, anti-capitalist analyses become impossible.”

          People doing this kind of thinking are necessarily going to be wrong at least some of the time given the amount of information they have to work with. But I think it’s important for people to recognize that power systems conspire and we should be doing what we can to figure out what they’re up to and why.

          I also want to address your more abstract points about the nature of power itself. I think power as a concept or empire as a form of it exists outside the concerns of individual actors. Empire’s survival is an assumed imperative and people play their respective institutional roles in sustaining it. Planners, for example, assess conditions in order to find the best way to exploit them. That is the kind of consciousness I am drawing attention to in my response to Scahill, as I think it serves power to ignore the role planners of imperial strategy play in the survival of empire.

          So I’m not saying power’s desire to pursue itself is merely a symptom of ruling class ambition/ideology. Or that they are necessarily aware of all the ways these complex structures they uphold function. I think capitalism has its own autonomous logic that everyone is forced to submit to in some way, often without recognition. But I think my more narrow point that seeks to push back on these infantile formulations of the consciousness and competency of the ruling class doesn’t discount the larger frame you correctly identify. If I’m understanding you correctly, I think we agree on at least some of this.

          Anyway, I have no idea if I’ve clarified anything, but your comment demanded some kind of response. If I’m still missing the point, or talking complete nonsense, please set me straight.

          • haptic says:

            Yes, you’ve clarified a lot and you’re neither missing the point nor talking nonsense.

            Anti-imperial epistemology is hard, because the Cartesian evil demon is the actual object of study, and he is a cruel deceiver.

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  12. Ghee Da Bored says:

    More time at the range needed. A few targets have extra-peripheral punches, but we consider those wasted ammo. You need to get into the rings. Then work for the black dot in the middle.

    Tepidly condemning surrogate thinking while doing it yourself isn’t even good satire, not when the rest of the entry is so milquetoast sincere.

    • Be more specific. Where am I embracing surrogate thinking? And please link to the more serious criticism along these lines, I would be happy to learn from it, as I did from the others I mentioned here.

      • Ghee Da Bored says:

        As a general example of shallow depths in critical thinking and skepticism deficiency/displacement, you’ve got quite a ways to go if it was surprising for you to discover Scahill is just a hack ideology peddler. Why were you even crediting him, or any of the other recently-rejected former lights, with wisdom or authority? Why do you credit anyone that way? Their status as influence or authority comes from you. Once you identify this and understand why, you no longer have to worry about an idol being pulverized by some surprise revelation. You just keep looking and you’re not confirming anything.

        If you want specifics from your entry above, just examine that paragraph beginning with “I largely came to my own politics from….”

        • Where did I say this was a surprise revelation? I said the tweet caught my attention, not just because of the source, but because I thought it was a uniquely vivid illustration of the weak foundational politics that I critique throughout the essay.

          I’m glad you have written all these people off, but perhaps this post wasn’t written with you in mind. I’m not trying to convince people who already see these figures as toxic, I’m trying to persuade people presently sympathetic to their work that may be open to a different perspective.

          I’ll also make the bold admission that my political development didn’t happen overnight. A couple of years ago, I still respected and deferred to many of these left celebrities because they expressed a point of view I agreed with and hadn’t heard elsewhere. They also opened me up to the world of left politics that I’ve engaged ever since. This may sound childish, but I don’t come from a radical background, and I wasn’t politically engaged in my early 20’s. It may have been different for you, but I have spent a lot of time trying to unlearn just about everything I’ve ever consumed, while also attempting to build back up an understanding of the world without falling into all the ideological traps laid out for anyone trying to think independently.

          My assumption is that most of the people who come to left politics as an adult are in some way being influenced by the people given platforms within the margins. Therefore, their compromised nature doesn’t have to come as a surprise to me in order to think analysis of their propaganda function is worth doing. It’s simply a rational response to the fact that these people have influence and their arguments are taken seriously by the vast majority.

          And, again, you didn’t provide an example of me employing surrogate thinking in this post. Instead, you misquoted me, and distorted the point I was making. What I actually said was “I largely came to my own politics through people like Chomsky, Greenwald and Scahill, but I typically don’t think people shed the influence of surrogate thinkers once they’ve become attached.” The point is that I was once the person I am trying to address with this post. So yes, I used to think Scahill was a serious war correspondent with good politics, and I assumed there was a lot I could learn from him. But I’m not seeing how that shows this essay embracing surrogate thinking in any way. In fact, it’s clearly doing the opposite by showing I was just as susceptible to celebrity left framing as anyone else, and using my experience to warn people off making similar mistakes. Maybe you’ve always been sufficiently skeptical of everything, but I think other people need some help navigating all these layers of distortion, and that’s really all I’m trying to do here.

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