I learned at the age of 10, when I was shipped off to a New England boarding school where the hazing of younger boys was the principal form of recreation, that those who hunger for power are psychopathic bastards. The bullies in the forms above me, the sadistic masters on our dormitory floors, the deans and the headmaster would morph in later life into bishops, newspaper editors, college presidents, politicians, heads of state, business titans and generals. Those who revel in the ability to manipulate and destroy are demented and deformed individuals. These severely diminished and stunted human beings—think Bill and Hillary Clinton—shower themselves, courtesy of elaborate public relations campaigns and an obsequious press, with encomiums of piety, patriotism, devoted public service, honor, courage and vision, not to mention a lot of money. They are at best mediocrities and usually venal. I have met enough of them to know.
So it is with some morbid fascination that I watch Barack Obama, who has become the prime “dominatrix” of the liberal class, force us in this election to plead for more humiliation and abuse. Obama has carried out a far more egregious assault on our civil liberties, including signing into law Section 1021(b)(2) of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), than George W. Bush. Section 1021(b)(2), which I challenged in federal court, permits the U.S. military to detain U.S. citizens, strip them of due process and hold them indefinitely in military facilities. U.S. District Judge Katherine B. Forrest struck down the law in September. The Obama administration immediately appealed the decision. The NDAA has been accompanied by use of the Espionage Act, which Obama has turned to six times in silencing whistle-blowers. Obama supported the FISA Amendment Act so government could spy on tens of millions of us without warrants. He has drawn up kill lists to exterminate those, even U.S. citizens, deemed by the ruling elite to be terrorists.
Obama tells us that we better lick his boots or we will face the brute down the hall, Mitt Romney. After all, we wouldn’t want the bad people to get their hands on these newly minted mechanisms of repression. We will, if we do not behave, end up with a more advanced security and surveillance state, the completion of the XL Keystone pipeline, unchecked pillage from Wall Street, environmental catastrophe and even worse health care. Yet we know on some level that once the election is over, Obama will, if he is re-elected, again betray us. This is part of the game. We dutifully assume our position. We cry out in holy terror. We promise to obey. And we are mocked as we watch promises crumble into dust.
As we are steadily stripped of power, we desire with greater and greater fervor to be victims and slaves. Our relationship to corporate power increasingly mirrors that of ancient religious cults. Lucian writes of the priests of Cybele who, whipped into frenzy, castrated themselves to honor the goddess. Women devotees cut off their breasts. We are not far behind.
“Anyone who wants to rule men first tries to humiliate them, to trick them out of their rights and their capacity for resistance, until they are as powerless before him as animals,” wrote Elias Canetti in “Crowds and Power.” “He uses them like animals and, even if he does not tell them so, in himself he always knows quite clearly that they mean just as little to him; when he speaks to his intimates he will call them sheep or cattle. His ultimate aim is to incorporate them into himself and to suck the substance out of them. What remains of them afterwards does not matter to him. The worse he has treated them, the more he despises them. When they are no more use at all, he disposes of them as he does excrement, simply seeing to it that they do not poison the air of his house."
Our masters rely on our labor to make them wealthy, on our children for cannon fodder in war and on our collective chants for adulation. They would otherwise happily slip us rat poison. When they retreat into their inner sanctums, which they keep hidden from public view, they speak in the cold words of manipulation, power and privilege, words that expose their visions of themselves as entitled and beyond the reach of morality or law.
The elite have produced a few manuals on power. Walter Lippmann’s “Public Opinion,” Leo Strauss’ work and “Atlas Shrugged” by the third-rate novelist Ayn Rand express the elite’s deep contempt for the sans-culottes. These writers posit that the masses are incapable of responding rationally to the complexities of power. They celebrate the role of a tiny, controlling elite that skillfully uses propaganda and symbols to, as Lippmann wrote, “manufacture consent.” They call on the power elite to operate in secrecy. The elite’s systems of propaganda are designed to magnify emotion and destroy the capacity for critical thought. Kafka was right: The modern world has made the irrational rational.
“Crowds have always undergone the influence of illusions,” wrote Gustave Le Bon, one of the first pioneers of the study of mass psychology. “Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.”
The more we believe the lies that saturate our airwaves, the more we salute our “heroes” in Iraq or Afghanistan, the more we militarize social and political values, the more frightened we become, the more we bow down and clamor for enslavement, the more the elite detests us. We are, in their eyes, vermin. We have to be dealt with and controlled. At times we have to be placated. At other times we have to be repressed and even killed. But we are a headache. Our existence interferes with the privileges of the ruling class.
“Those who have put out the people’s eyes,” John Milton wrote, “reproach them of their blindness.”
There are a few writers and artists who give us a view of the dark, corrupt heart of power. The 1972 film “The Ruling Class,” a black comedy based on Peter Barnes’ play, does this, as does Jean Genet’s play “The Balcony.” So does Noam Chomsky, Elias Canetti’s “Crowds and Power,” C. Wright Mill’s “The Power Elite,” Karl Marx’s “Capital,” Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow,” Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” and Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s “Castle to Castle.” The astute explorations of the pathology of power, however, are buried in the avalanche of Disneyfied popular culture and nationalist cant. The elite deeply fears any art, literature, philosophy, poetry, theology and drama that challenge the assumptions and structures of authority. These disciplines must appear to the public only in bastardized forms, packaged as froth, entertainment or sentimental drivel that celebrates the established hierarchy.
Pynchon in “Gravity’s Rainbow” portrays Brigadier Ernest Pudding, the commander of a special psychological operations unit in World War II and a veteran of World War I, as the archetypal member of the elite. Pudding’s glory on the battlefield “came in 1917, in the gassy, Armageddonite filth of the Ypres salient, where he conquered a bight of no man’s land some 40 yards at its deepest, with a wastage of only 70% of his unit.” He holds secret fortnightly trysts with “the Mistress of the Night” where he strips, kisses her boots, receives blows from a cane, drinks her urine and eats her excrement. He dies “of a massive E. Coli infection” that results from his nocturnal coprophagic rituals.
Peter Barnes captures the same dementia in “The Ruling Class,” in which Ralph Gurney, the 13th earl of Gurney, accidentally hangs himself in his bedroom while wearing a tutu and playing erotic games with a noose. His successor, Jack Gurney, believes he is God and speaks only of love and charity. This will not do. A psychiatrist is called in to help the new earl adapt to his role as a representative of the ruling class. By the time the psychiatrist’s work is complete, Jack is cured of his God delusion. He now believes he is Jack the Ripper. He assumes his seat in the House of Lords. He rails against the unemployed, homosexuals and socialists. He champions God, queen and country, along with corporal and capital punishment. He murders innocent women on the side, including his wife, and becomes an esteemed member of the ruling class.
Genet, who like Pynchon and Barnes equates the lust for power with sexual depravity, sets “The Balcony” in a brothel. Clients don the vestments of power, including those of a judge, a bishop and a general. The “bishop,” who outside the brothel works for the gas company, hears the sins of the prostitutes in confession and revels in the power of absolution. The “judge” metes out severe sentences for trivial offenses to maintain law and order. The “general,” who rides his prostitute as if she were a horse, demands self-sacrifice, honor and glory for the state. A bank clerk in the brothel, meanwhile, defiles the Virgin Mary. Revolution occurs outside the doors of the brothel. The actual rulers, priests, generals and judges are killed. The patrons step outside, along with Irma, the brothel madam, who is anointed the new queen, to assume the roles in society they once playacted and to mount the counterrevolution.
Irma, at the close of the play, turns to face the audience. She says:
“In a little while, I’ll have to start all over again … put all the lights on again … dress up. … (A cock crows.) Dress up … ah, the disguises! Distribute roles again … assume my own. … (She stops in the middle of the stage, facing the audience.) … Prepare yours … judges, generals, bishops, chamberlains, rebels who allow the revolt to congeal, I’m going to prepare my costumes and studios for tomorrow. …You must now go home, where everything—you can be quite sure—will be falser than here. … You must go now. You’ll leave by the right, through the alley. … (She extinguishes the last light. It’s morning already. (A burst of machine-gun fire.)
The only recognizable basis for moral and political authority, in the eyes of the elite, is the attainment of material success and power. It does not matter how it is gotten. The role of education, the elites believe, is to train us vocationally for our allotted positions and assure proper deference to the wealthy. Disciplines that prod us to think are—and the sneering elites are not wrong about this—“political,” “leftist,” “liberal” or “subversive.” And schools and universities across the country are effectively stomping out these disciplines. The elites know, as Canetti wrote, that once we stop thinking we become a herd. We react to every new stimulus as if we were rats crammed into a cage. When the elites push the button we jump. It is collective sadomasochism. And we will get a good look at it on Election Day.