The Danger Within

We’ve entered a dangerous era in the United States. Many of our nominal constitutional protections have been officially suspended for a generation, the USA now runs a vast network of concentration camps for asylum seekers, whose simple arrival at “our” borders has been criminalized. The president uses racist invective without shame and calls himself a nationalist. The liberal-ish press sees itself primarily as a purveyor of entertainment and strives for “balance” while their right-wing colleagues practice sycophancy and promote the most extreme propaganda.

Why is Western “democracy” so vulnerable to fascism and nationalism? Why does fascism come back with a vengeance every three or four generations? It is a mistake to ascribe this to unique economic and historical conditions that produce monsters like Trump, Duterte, MBS, Orban, and Bolsonaro. And although expressions of xenophobia and white supremacy include Capitalism and colonialism, Marx can’t adequately explain it.

There is something dark and perverse in human nature. The fascists we ought to fear the most are not always the demagogues who show up on election years — sometimes they live right next door.

In 1929 Freud saw something frightening approaching as he wrote Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, which has been translated as Civilization and its Discontents. It’s one of Freud’s best and most pessimistic essays. Whatever you may think of psychoanalysis, mommy issues or cigars, Freud offers insight into the clash — not of civilizations — but between “civilization” and the individual. His work, alongside that of anarchists like Emma Goldman, tries to explain why “democracies” never manage to rise above human frailty. More often, in fact, they enshrine our worst human impulses in law and hand over power to hyper-aggressive miscreants and monsters.

This week’s ongoing deterioration of Western democracy includes Australia’s new surveillance legislation which neuters encryption standards so that security services can read citizens’ encrypted communications. This joins New Zealand’s digital strip-search legislation, which fines people $5,000 if they won’t allow their phones and laptops to be searched without a warrant.

China is rolling out its “social credit” system, which makes the Stasi’s files look benign in comparison. And the Philippine president has called for the murder of Catholic clergy critical of him. Domestically, a and Cornell University study released this week revealed the extent of America’s police state — one half of all Americans have a family member currently or once incarcerated. And as I write this the American president still continues to defend a Saudi prince who US spy agencies say was complicit in a horrific assassination.

For all the fascist preoccupation with refugees, we have little to fear from people crossing our borders. As always, the real danger lies within.