"Never be deceived that the rich will allow you to vote away their wealth."
— Lucy Parsons
My mother called me one day, and said she could only pay one of her credit card bills. She’d been financially destroyed by life events, and was in the process of losing everything, including her house. She was ashamed, trying to pick which of the corporations hounding her to give her last money to. She gave me the names, and I said I’d get back to her. I did some research and called her back — one had been in multiple class actions suits for defrauding their customers, settling with gag orders to prevent the stories from coming out. The other had been hauled in front of Congress and questioned about laundering money for genocidal dictators. “You can pay whichever one you think is more ethical than you,” I told her. She decided on the first one.
Americans are mostly great people. We are generous to a fault, creative, funny, egalitarian, and willing to learn from others, individually. We have terrible racism. But while traveling, I’ve found most of the world is worse, and at least we are talking about it. Our myths about meritocracy are silly, but at least hopeful. We make many poor choices, but we constantly self-reflect and debate them, often with real societal progress. We aren’t perfect by any means, but we have heart. As a people, we have a lot of try.
Then there's America, the nation.
When it comes to international aggression, attacking democracy worldwide, domestic imprisonment, torture, resource exploitation and global environmental collapse, we are literally the worst people on Earth.
The military-industrial complex, first named and condemned by one of the 20th century's great conservative presidents, grows unchecked and out of control. We engage in wars of choice, violate our own treaties, and contractors force wasteful and insane projects on the military, while enabling and encouraging human rights abuses abroad — as long as they're expensive. A low-tech human rights abuse like Abu Ghraib is a scandal. The routine bombing of civilians in Pakistan and Yemen, pumping money into the contractors’ purses, is a policy.
Our president has claimed the right to be the judge, jury, and the executioner of anyone his staff deems a terrorist, or anyone near them. This policy is unopposed by any other part of our government.
And this power has extended to the extra-judicial killing of an American child. This is what led to Obama assassinating a 16 year-old American boy, the child of another American that had been judged beyond his rights because he preached critically about America to more alleged terrorists. The administration later explained this latter murder was a mistake, but it’s the kind of mistake due process was meant to prevent. That horrific tragedy, like all the other children killed, has done nothing to slow the American assassination program, which goes on without shame to this day.
Domestically, the prison business and the war on drugs has turned us into a viciously racist and torturing country. Our justice system has moved from Jim Crow to something that looks more like the old slavery, with people of color serving cruel sentences as a kind of contractual proxy resource for vast rich and politically powerful private prison corporations. We not only have the highest rate of incarceration, but with solitary and overcrowding, the highest rate of inhuman conditions for prisoners. Many of us know about the hunger striking and force-feeding of prisoners of Gitmo, but there’s hunger strikers fighting for their human rights and a force-feeding regime, in California prisons too. They started their third hunger strike in two years in July, and suspended it in September, largely in failure.
Make no mistake, all of this is torture. But it turns out we torture so often it seems we need a new word for non-routine torture.
The war on drugs that has made us the greatest human rights abuser is, itself, politically untouchable. It makes the prison-industrial complex rich, a common theme among the untouchable political issues of America.
This is a country where the only way healthcare could be provided, insomuch as it is, is by being a giant hand out to the insurance companies — a social structure that provides no value to a chain of care and exists exclusively to perform wealth extraction on the medical system. What treatments you can get for your illnesses are predicated on pharmaceutical industry payoff schemes and a patent system that has proved as unreformable as it is exploitative. Our system of intellectual property prevents technical inventions from reaching the market, treatments and cures from being researched, and hurts the entire world.
An Anonymous source once said to me that America was about power. “No,” I told him, “America is about money, power is a game for small nations who don’t know better.” Power for power’s sake is the game of silly puffed-up men, the kind the American empire has often used and discarded. Money is what drives empires. Money, and the energy and resources it is a synecdoche for, is the point of the power classes of America. From the chain that begins on the streets, the addicts and the cops, to the cartels, the banks and the DEA, it’s cash flow. From the land and sea to the extractive corporations, from the millions of workers that leave their ethics at home everyday to get enough bucks to keep themselves and their families going, from the supply chain slaves around the world that make my child’s clothes cheap enough to buy, cash rules everything around me. Only a few ever see any benefit, and maybe no one at all really does.
Like a parasite, cash has consumed the mental faculties of my society and left only a suicidal husk.
As for reform, American political organizing needs to admit that it is an abject failure. Not merely liberal and leftist activism, but across the spectrum. Corrupted by funding or the need to look funded by a funded media, no end can ever be seen challenging the course of our steady destruction and exploitation. We have not slid to the right or left so much as slid into a kleptocracy, which sometimes uses rightist and conservative language to perform wealth extraction through the state—a distinctly non-right position. Ask the Tea Partiers if they’ve gotten anything from their efforts. By and large they will sound like Larry Lessig — frustrated that corruption has prevented anyone’s voice from being heard in the halls of government, beyond lobbyists or contractors.
Sometimes conservatives win a battle against abortion. Many states now allow gay marriage. A few social issues swing here and there, issues the kleptocrats have no real interest in. They exist off the relevant axis of actual American political evolution. We’ve spent the last 30 years losing every battle with kleptocracy and government support of corporations so enthusiastic it has become a merging.
Political protest is a Potemkin village, and everyone knows it. It is pure spectacle, free of real world consequence. It can be safely ignored or marginalized on the edges of real American politics, as long as it doesn't interfere with the kleptocracy. If it does, or even threatens to talk about the kleptocracy, it will be violently put down.
Speech is welcome in America, as long as it doesn’t do anything. There are exceptions to speech, where needed. Criticizing agribusiness comes with special gag laws. The DMCA allows those with the most lawyers to use copyright claims to silence critics and shut down competition. Anti-racketeering laws are increasingly used to criminalize political organizing.
Through all of this, Americans are some of the most hardworking people in the world. Which we have to be, because we labor under the most personal debt, largely rising out of bills for education and medical treatment. We are simply not our own people, living most of our lives under a kind of mild but prevailing indenture that numbs our willingness to speak out of turn. Only the rich can take chances, everyone else faces ruin at risking anything.
There is no place with more personal debt and heavier patterns of obligation than the Land of the Free. We are free to try to get expensive degrees to get jobs that barely exist, we are free to spend most of our lives paying student loans, we are free to lose everything we may have gained the moment we get sick. Along the way we can buy more things and get into more housing debt than almost anyone in the world, making our freedom one of consumption — consuming and being consumed by the systems we are born to.
We are free to vote in gerrymandered districts, and free to vote for two federal parties that are largely identical. We are free to vote on machines and systems that it is often illegal to audit for security purposes. We are all free to talk at once, and listen to no one at all. We are free, ever free, to chase as many dollars as we can, all the way to Hell.
It’s time to call America what it is: a kleptocracy, run by corporations and governments with only cosmetic distinctions. It is full of good people whom the kleptocrats keep fighting against each other, as they have for over 150 years, and will until the good people drown in rising saltwater or epic storms, or simply die, exhausted and used up.