Anti-Capitalist Meetup: John Brennan, Barack Obama and the Banality of Evil in Service of Late Capitalist Imperialism by Le Gauchiste

"Some years ago, reporting the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem, I spoke of 'the Banality of evil' and meant with this ... the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology or ideological conviction in the doer, whose only personal distinction was a perhaps extraordinary shallowness...., and the only specific characteristic one could detect on his part as well as in his behavior ... was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think."

--Hannah Arendt

Whether political theorist Hannah Arendt was correct in her assessment of Adolf Eichmann--and I am inclined to believe she was duped by his testimony in Jerusalem and hence overstated the extent to which he was an example of the banality of evil--she was onto something important with the concept. For while the idea of the banality of evil may have become at times a cliche and, far worse, a facile evasion of moral responsibility, it nonetheless provides a way to understand how Late Capitalism's Imperialism creates conditions that necessitate self-alienation on the part of the individual as well the social formation as a whole.

Torture doesn't matter anymore, at least not to the Barack Obama administration. Four years ago, John Brennan, a 25-year veteran of the CIA, was forced to withdraw his name from consideration to be CIA Director (DCI) because of his public support of--and likely participation in--the Bush administration’s programs of torturing terrorism suspects and/or sending them to foreign prisons to be tortured. Apparently wishing to maintain his anti-torture credentials at the time, Obama appointed Brennan to a White House job that did not require Senate confirmation.

Four years later, his human rights record irretrievably tarnished by the illegal drone assassination program, Obama nominated Brennan--who has been running Obama's drone assassination program from the White House--to be the next DCI. If confirmed, he would succeed Gen. David Petraeus, who resigned following revelations of an extra-marital affair in November 2009.

So, according to Obama, it's okay to kidnap and torture and kill terrorism suspects without even a hint of "due process of law," but if you put your dick in the wrong person, you're unfit to run the CIA.

Obama is, sadly, right: Under the Imperialism of Late Capitalism, only a moral degenerate like John Brennan is fit to run an utterly amoral outfit like the CIA.

By "the Imperialism of Late Capitalism" we mean the forcible opening up of all spatial, ecological and cultural boundaries of peoples and nations to the global flow of capital and goods and services, according to the needs of capital and of Late Capitalism, which itself is wracked by ever-worsening crises that fuel the need for ever-more globalization.

But unlike Barack Obama, whose tolerance for torture and other human rights abuses seems of recent vintage, Brennan's views were warped from a relatively young age. Born to Irish immigrant parents, John Brennan earned a B.A. in Political Science at Fordham University in 1977 and an M.A. in Government with a concentration in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin in 1980.

Although Brennan officially joined the CIA in 1980—he tells reporters a story of how his “wanderlust” was piqued by a CIA recruiting ad in the New York Times—some of his activities at Fordham suggest his recruitment dates back to his school days. Bob Keane, a classmate from the 4th grade through sophomore year at Fordham, told reporters that Brennan spent the summer after freshman year in Indonesia with a cousin who was working for the Agency for International Development, and visited Bahrain on the way home. “I wondered if he had even been recruited that early,” mused Keane. In fact, Brennan spent his junior year abroad learning fluent Arabic and taking Middle Eastern studies courses at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, a well-known site for CIA recruitment and training.

At UT, Brennan wrote an M.A. Thesis, “Human Rights: The Case Study of Egypt,” in which he denied the existence of “absolute human rights,” defended censorship in Egypt and indicated an early tolerance for torture. “Since the press can play such an influential role in determining the perceptions of the masses, I am in favor of some degree of government censorship,” wrote Brennan.

Taking his relativistic view of human rights to its logical conclusion, Brennan argued that

“the fact that absolute human rights do not exist (with the probable exception of freedom from torture) makes the [human rights] analysis subject to innumerable conditional criticisms.” (emphasis added.) 

Think about that for a moment: John Brennan wrote that, in his opinion, not only are human rights not absolute, freedom from torture is only a "probable exception"--meaning that at the young age of 25, the Jesuit-educated Brennan was rejecting the 200-year-old anti-torture teachings of the Jesuit-educated Cesare Beccaria, the father of modern penology and human rights, who argued that torture is always wrong. Just a few years after his probable recruitment by the CIA, Brennan's mind was already being warped by the needs of capitalist imperialism.

Working for Bush in the 2000s, Brennan became the embodiment of the banality of evil, helping to facilitate illegal kidnappings and torture in the name of the greater good--in this case so-called "national security." Under Obama, Brennan has become the chief Angel of Death in the White House, selecting which terror suspects are to be murdered via unmanned drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan, and elsewhere--and then lying about it later, as when he publicly claimed that drone attacks in Pakistan in 2010 did not cause “a single collateral death” when authorities knew better.

But the tragedy here lies with Barack Obama, who is able to make statements about the horrors of the Sandy Hook massacre while blithely raining down equivalent massacres on schoolchildren in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is this banality of evil--Obama's ability to commit evil acts while pretending (to himself and to the world) that he remains a basically decent human being who loves his wife and daughters--that is one of the most corrosive aspects of Late Capitalist Imperialism.

Just as capitalist production alienates the worker, not only from the means of production and the product of his labor, but from his true species-essence as a human being, so too the reproduction of the Late Capitalist system requires acts of moral evil that alienate, not only the doers of these deeds but the entire social formation, from their human essence as creative and moral actors. Because such a reality would be intolerable if faced with honesty, the banality of evil represents a form of social-psychological ideology of denial that perpetuates Late Capitalism and the suffering attendant upon it.

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very excellent piece

angel d's picture

Glad to see it posted at other sites as well, it deserves a wide exposure.

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The banality of evil is real and important

geomoo's picture

This notion is fresh on my mind, having just seen the new docudrama Hannah Arendt, which focuses on the period in her life when she was reporting on the Eichman trial and came up with her theory.  To my understanding, this essay misses the point on the notion.  The entire point is to look at the system rather than at individuals.  Arendt was widely vilified for her theory, which was put forward in the same article in which she claimed that cooperation of Jewish leaders with Nazis led to more Jews being killed than if there had simply been chaos.  There was virtually no discussion of her nuanced theory; instead, there was character assassination--she is a self-hater, devoid of emotion, without integrity, and much worse--and absurd mischaracterization--she is blaming the victims, she is denying the Holocaust was evil.  In the hysteria, Arendt lost most of her closest friends as well as support from the wider community.  I learned from this episode that it is dangerous to get between people and their need to have culprits, to put human evil on certain people or groups while denying it in others.

What I question in this diary is the focus on individuals when discussing the banality of evil.  The starting point for Arendt was how such a mediocre man could be being blamed for such horrendous evil.  She said that, because the system could not be put on trial, a single person had to stand in for all the horror, and such is the human way.  In seeing the understandable reaction of Jews to her theory, I felt I was watching the seeds being planted of Israel's current human rights violations.  It is understandable, because it is difficult to expect victims of violence to be able to entertain nuance or to accept that they contain within them the same potential for evil as their persecutors.  But if we insist that nazis were some kind of different human being, human beings capable of evil in a way that normal human beings aren't, then we will not address the sources of evil--ironically, we are continuing the cycle of projection and blame that was the basis of nazi behavior.  Because Jews insisted on denying all complicity as well as any possibility that Nazi behavior was in some ways normal human behavior--because they insisted on being 100% victims and 100% justified, we now find a situation in which many Isreali Jews simply cannot entertain the possibility that they are committing evil acts towards the Palestinians.

To bring it to the current day domestically, demonizing Obama and Brennan is actually an obstacle to addressing the very human explanations for what they United States has become.  In the world of power politics, such demonizing can be expected, but if we wish to understand the nature of evil, we must find some way to accept our own complicity.  If we wish to create a world of metanoia, we must wean ourselves from paranoia-based analyses.

It is not my intention to invalidate this essay in its entirety so much as to question the way banality of evil is being employed.  We need to give up believing that certain uniquely evil humans are responsible for all evil rather than seeing evil is a product of universal human tendencies.  Here is the inconsistency:  The things that are occurring today were predicted for a capitalist system well before Brennan or Obama was born.  The end point of capitalism is seen as flowing inexorably from the qualities of the system.  Thus, is it not inconsistent to want to hold Obama or Brennan as individually responsible for what is happening?  In short, we must find ways to address systemic evil; this can only be done if we free ourselves from the natural human tendency to assign personal blame to humans who behave the way most humans would behave in similar circumstances.  We must find a way to come to terms with the potential for evil in each of us.

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I agree with almost everything you wrote

Le Gauchiste's picture

I especially agree with this statement: "if we insist that nazis were some kind of different human being, human beings capable of evil in a way that normal human beings aren't, then we will not address the sources of evil--ironically, we are continuing the cycle of projection and blame that was the basis of nazi behavior." 

 

However, I disagree with this: "The end point of capitalism is seen as flowing inexorably from the qualities of the system.  Thus, is it not inconsistent to want to hold Obama or Brennan as individually responsible for what is happening?"

I believe that, regardless of the systemic nature of the imperatives of capitalism, the individual must be held morally accountable for his/her actions, as responsibility is rooted in choice resting on free will. Obama, Brennan and others all have made choices to engage in their evil conduct on behalf of the system, for which they are rewarded handsomely. It would be inconsistent with basic ethics to let them off the hook because "the system made them do it." 

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That is a helpful response.

geomoo's picture

I'm relieved that we agree on the premise that matters to me.  I do think I expressed myself inaccurately in the very way you point out.  I think my point is that, while we naturally must challenge behavior where we see it, it is crucial not to lose sight of the fact that the problems we hope to solve will never be solved by finding people to blame nor even by holding individuals accountable.  If it were easy for us to hold Obama accountable while remembering that he is merely a human like all humans; if it were easy to remember that Obama is merely a cog in the system while holding him acccountable, there would be little problem.  It is not easy; it is extremely difficult.  It is human nature to find someone outside ourselves to blame everything on while ignoring the fact that, like Obama, we are each behaving all too humanly, playing our roles in the system we wish to change, perhaps by consuming more than our share or by taking refuge in ownership of private property.

I am urging consideration of evil in terms other than putting people on the hook or letting them off the hook.  I am asking that we consider evil in terms of common humanity, as shared problems.  This matters because an essential element to ending paranoid, exploitative behavior is take responsibility for our own humanity, for the fact that we are like Obama.  This is no simple task.  To go back to Arendt's time, she was asking Jews who had just been through the holocaust, many of them the sole survivors from their extended families, to be able to acknowledge some degree of complicity in their own people.  It is hard to imagine how people could do this, but Arendt managed, so it is possible.  We might argue that making these arguments needs to wait until some time has passed.  But then we come up against what we see these decades later--many Israeli Jews still convinced that they are permanent victims and thus unable to see their own, all too human, participation in evil.

I am attempting to address the way in which we hold people responsible, the attitudes we have.  If Arendt's thought is invoked, I believe it is important to get her point straight.  She was not saying that it made sense to lay the entire holocaust at Eichman's feet because he was a new kind of evil, a banal kind of evil.  She was saying that the evil of the holocaust cannot be fully explained by looking at the behavior of the one man.

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I expect we know the excuse for the evil that will be ...

BruceMcF's picture

... advanced at Agent Orange ~ and that excuse gets to the systemic nature of the evil ~ that if President Obama had in fact refused to engage in these evil acts, his refusal would have been used to defeat him in his bid for re-election.

It might, indeed, be true ... but then, (1) President Obama is no longer running for re-election, so what is the excuse now? and (2) if you always choose to keep your powder dry, it might as well be dirt.

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can you clarify this statement??

sartoris's picture

Because Jews insisted on denying all complicity as well as any possibility that Nazi behavior was in some ways normal human behavior--because they insisted on being 100% victims and 100% justified......

I have always understood her point of 'the banality of evil' to mean that people like Eichmann followed orders without considering the consequences of those orders. 

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I think she was saying that and more

geomoo's picture

She was accepting Eichman's claim that after he had the trains loaded efficiently and on time, on their way to Auschwitz, that he did not concern himself with what happened after that.  There is a perfect parallel between this stance and the way most Americans feel about victims of drone strikes.  After we pay our taxes, we do not think about what happens from there--we do not take responsibility for it.  It is the rare Amercan who "thinks" about the victims or feels any personal responsibilty for drone strikes.  I happen to think Arendt's use of failure to think is flawed--I think of it as, it is not real to people.  It is odd to me how easily people seem to be able to imagine themselves living in a time of systemic evil and somehow imagine themselves untainted.  It has been shown experimentally that Eichman behaved in the exact same way as the vast majority of humans would have behaved.  That he was unable to perceive his own guilt was a measure of his lack of imagination and introspection.  I see these same lacks in the people with whom I attempt to discuss these issues today.

If we attempt to make people guilty for being human, then we continue the patterns we wish to change.  We can hold people accountable while still keeping this in mind.

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can't agree with you on this

sartoris's picture

I don't there is any correlation to be found between loading trains full of people to send to a deathcamp, and the act of paying taxes. I think you're referring to the Milgram experiment that showed how easy it is to have people 'shock' other people, as long as they can blame a higher authority.  The 'I was just following orders' experiment. That's a great experiment, however, it doesn't explain the holocaust, and should not be construed as doing so.  There have been 5 modern genocides.  Armenia, Germany, Cambodia, Serbia and Rwanda. Each of those counties were experiencing many similarities that led to the conditions necessary for genocide to happen. The most important element necessary for a genocide is a totalitarian government.

That's why the Marxist countries experienced some of the most egregious acts of inhumanity known in history. Without a totalitarian regime the fear factor is missing. I don't think anyone is attempting to 'make people guilty for being human', I think we are saying: Even under extreme conditions you are responsible for your actions. The conditioning of the people to see those they are going to kill as being less than human is a central element in each of the 5 genocides. The Germans were rabidly anti-semitic. It was not that the Jews were bad humans, it was that they were less than human. Conditioning the population to see another part of the population as 'less than human' is, in my opinion, the key ingredient of each genocide.

We dehumanized the Native Americans in much the same manner. My greatest fear with the war on terror is that we portray the 'enemy' as 'less than human', and in doing so our killing of them is justified. In each genocide there are the killers and the killed. The killers are 100% guilty and the killed are 100% innocent.

Anyway, it's always nice to talk with someone who has actually read Hannah Arendt. It is a rare occasion when I meet someone else who has read her books. You might enjoy a fairly short book on this subject by Christopher Browning called: Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. I found much to disagree with Browning, however, it's a very detailed account of the use of 'ordinary' Germans to carry out murders.

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I wish there were a clear dividing line

geomoo's picture

between good and evil.  I've been thinking today about psychopaths.  I believe that is a possible evil.  A few psycopaths can create a lot of harm.  What is the culpability of those around them?  Surely there is a scale.  This is a vexed question.  No one is not complicit, and paying taxes is on the same spectrum, but more specificially, the psychological process of denial, projection, and unconsciousness is identical in the two cases.  That is a lesson for us all to learn, even if it's only in paying for taxes.

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paying taxes is an indirect action, not a direct action

sartoris's picture

The actions of Eichmann were quite direct. There was a definite connection between what he (and others) were doing and the deaths of the victims. How can you link the payment of taxes to the specific drone attack that kills an innocent civilian? By your reasoning, those Americans who do not pay federal taxes are quite innocent since they made no monetary contribution that could be traced to the DoD's budget. Additionally, the DoD has a very specific budget. It's not theoretical or open to debate. There is an actual amount of money that is spent by the U.S. on military purposes. That amount of money does not exceed the amount of tax revenues, therefore, not everyone's taxes are used to fund the DoD. By extension, that would mean that not everyone saw their money used to kill an innocent civilian.

When you say, 'no one is not complicit', you are also implicating the innocent civilian that is killed in the drone attack. I simply cannot follow your reasoning or logic in this matter. However, as usual, I appreciate your conversation.

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None of this is theoretical in the least

geomoo's picture

 

Sorry but, with respect, this looks to me like exactly the kind of sophistry Eichmann engaged in, differentiating “direct” from “indirect” and doing percent calculations of where taxes go.  Let me try approaching this from a different angle.

I wonder how culpable one holds the average German citizen for what happened in the holocaust.  Let’s take a provincial mayor who is naturally a member of the nazi party, as was everyone, and who in normal life is a decent, well-meaning individual.  He is aware of what is happening to the Jews.  How responsible is this man for what happened at the concentration camp 50 miles outside his town?  If you are like most people, you consider this man to be somewhat guilty.  This man, on the other hand, likely feels blameless, feels like a normal person living his life in a very difficult time.

Moving to the present, imagine that you live in a Pakistan village under constant threat of drone attack.  (These drones hover overhead spying 24/5, droning their threat of assault.  How many Americans have taken the time to be aware of this.)  Let’s say your two children were killed in a drone attack launched on a funeral.  I ask you, how responsible do you think you would hold the average U.S. citizen for what happened to you, let’s say the citizen who pays his taxes and voted for the command-in-chief to be president?  Surely you will agree that you would hold all Americans to be somewhat guilty and there is a good chance you would come to think of all Americans as the embodiment of evil.  Come back to America and how responsible does the average Democrat feel?  Not responsible in the least is what I see.

This mismatch in assigning guilt to others over taking responsibility oneself is the stuff of wars.  This is how they happen.  No, this is not abstract in the least.  Neither “side” can see that, were the roles to be reversed, the behaviors would be the same human behaviors.  The problem is the strong resistance to seeing the humanity of someone perceived as evil and at the same time resistance to seeing oneself as having the potential for evil.  If we wish to create a more peaceful, less violent world, then it is necessary for each of us to come to terms with this human trait of easily assigning blame for the evil in the world and almost never taking responsibility for any of it.  It is always the other people who are the problem.  This is a well-established psychological fact and is an example of our common humanity.

It is frustrating to me to find people I consider strong allies defending their right to demonize.  The author invoked Arendt’s theory, then challenged it immediately by speculating that she had been duped by Eichmann.  Already we find resistance to seeing Eichmann as a normal human being.  Already, the heart of her idea had been undermined.  The essay goes on to misapply the notion of the banality of evil by continuing on with the kind of thought Arendt was questioning.  Her point was not that Eichmann was fully guilty but that the evil i him was a banal sort of evil, a sort of evil which could not fully explain the unthinkable horrors.  Who could consider the holocaust to be banal evil?  I’m sorry, but Arendt’s thought is important and it disturbs me to see it mis-applied in this manner, especially given how relevant her ideas are to us today.  The sad truth is, a truth by now well shown, the sad truth is that the majority of humans would have behaved as Eichmann behaved in the same circumstances.  It should no longer be a surprise to people that the same peoples who were victimized by the likes of Eichmann now turn around and victimize others.  Like Eichmann, they justify their behavior and feel no sense of guilt over the suffering of the Palestinians.  What does one do about this state of affairs?  One necessary ingredient is for individual people to be able to own their full humanity, including the tendency to blame others while feeling no culpability oneself.

So, despite differences in direct vs indirect, the over-riding point is shared humanity.  This is not an abstract term.  We each have the same brains, the same inherited reflexes, very similar responses to similar stimuli.  Whether we are discussing Eichmann or a U.S. tax-payer, the same process is in play in each person, finding a way to justify what they do, to avoid taking on any responsility for any of the evil in the world.  The fact that the horrors of the crime are different or the level of participation is different does not change in the least the similiarity of the psychological process of declaring oneself fully innocent and another fully to blame.

This is tough:

When you say, 'no one is not complicit', you are also implicating the innocent civilian that is killed in the drone attack.

I believe there is no such thing as a purely innocent civilian, but I won’t pursue this very challenging aspect to how I see things, nor does the above argument depend on having to hold all the way out to this extreme.

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simply being a citizen of a country does not make you guilty

sartoris's picture

No, I simply cannot follow your reasoning. You are endorsing collective punishment when you endorse collective guilt. No, I do not blame every German citizens for the crimes committed during their lifetime. Being a German citizen and being a member of the Nazi party were two completely different things. Also, I simply cannot agree with collective punishment or collective guilt. I understand your theoretical arguments, however, I am in complete disagreement.

As a rational thinking person I have the ability to consider the consequences of a person's specific crime. Perhaps we're just talking past each other. I am calling the Time of Death on this particular horse..........

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Sorry, just for the record

geomoo's picture

Nor am I talking about collective guilt.  Quite the contrary, I am talking about individual responsibility.  It is not new to me that you seem to be unable even to entertain what I am saying enough to actually disagree with me.  This is pretty much the same response Arendt encountered.  People insisted that she was blaming the victim, to take one example.  She was not, nor am I.

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However, the payment of taxes does not fund ...

BruceMcF's picture

... the Defense Department ~ that's the neoclassical fantasy version of how an economy works, after all ~ so its hard to see wherein the individual responsibility lies. Its kind of like making someone in Texas who refused to participate in Gov. Perry's prayer for rain responsible for the continued drought. How is there individual responsibility with no causal connection between the action and the evil that is the purported consequence?

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I'm baffled by this

geomoo's picture

Americans pay taxes to the federal government.  Americans fund the CIA, the military, the whole shebang.  Americans raise their children to respect the government and in many cases raise their children to be willing to kill for the government.  Americans cheer their military at their football games and tolerate the most heinous of war crimes.  It is beyond disturbing that I'm arguing with people I have lot of respect for, the to-me obvious fact that, if you are an American citizen today, you are complict in precisely the same way Germans citizens are considered complicit in the holocaust.  No difference.  It's the same thing.  A lot of our friends on the left voted for a known war ciminal, knowing at the time enough information to prove he is a war ciminal, and even as he continued to commit criminal acts.  Some of us whine on line about the state of affairs.

This stuns me.  I don't understand the sophistry behind taxes do not fund defense.  Wherever you think the money comes from, it would dry up immediately without the support in funds and in validation of the system.  The system, however it works, derives its power, its worth, from the millions of Americans who pay taxes in both money and cannon fodder.

Fuck.  This could not be more upsetting.

We, as Americans, are complicit in war cimes.  And that's the way it is.  Whatever people choose to do about that, whether denial or paralysis or whatever, is none of my business, I guess.

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Very well said, JayRaye.

Glinda's picture

A good reason to come here to vots, is for a discussion

That is exactly why VotS was created... with the hope that voices could be heard; agree or disagree but let's hear them.  It's that important.

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