Battlefield America: The War on the American People by John W. Whitehead (SelectBooks, 2015), 352 pages.
John W. Whitehead is among the most dedicated and articulate civil libertarians of his generation. His latest book, Battlefield America: The War on the American People, is a cogent argument that today the clear and present danger to Americans and their freedom is government. Battlefield America argues convincingly that the American people have docilely accepted a police state — that while we were entranced by the news media’s continual, color-coded warnings of terrorist attacks, desensitized by gradual exposure to increasingly militarized police, and eagerly awaiting the next iPhone, we missed the materialization of a fully developed police state right before our eyes. Freedom has not been wrested from us violently, Whitehead argues, but relinquished voluntarily, for “a cheap price: safety, security, bread, and circuses.”
Battlefield America’s grim story, accented by references to Blade Runner and The Terminator, shows government power without shackles, primed to create a real-life dystopia through militaristic infrastructure already long in place. Before finally calling us to action in part 5 of his book, “The Resistance,” Whitehead buries us in an avalanche of evidence. The result is an alarming and sobering look inside the gears of power, the bowels of an imperial state that sees the citizenry as its enemy. Whitehead challenges us to think about how we see ourselves, about whether we will accept the Brave New World of the police state or rebel in favor of freedom.
“The forces of science, technology, and history,” Whitehead writes, “have ushered in a new era of how we view ourselves.” The corporate-state hopes to exploit this change, reducing us to a series of statistics and metrics, to data sets that it can use to perfect total control. The Progressive Era ideal, government experts with expansive administrative powers, unconstrained by old-fashioned, inconvenient constitutional restraints, has been realized. With the Internet’s constant percolation of new content, requests, and interactions — our connections with it and each other at their most uninterrupted — there is no shortage of data for the federal government and its willing accomplices to mine.
The goal is to harvest as much information as possible, and to harness new technologies to interpret it, always with “total population control” in mind and national security as the professed rationale. Everything is couched in the language of science and safety. Perhaps the strict rationalist in each libertarian can sympathize with the impulse, if not the actions that grow out of it. After all, the modernists — fascists, progressives, socialists, and others — hoped to leverage new scientific revelations in an effort to create a neater, cleaner, more orderly social system. As Whitehead notes, quoting Jeffrey Tucker, fascism promises “a new and more scientific way of managing national life.” But Socrates and Friedrich Hayek, among many others, had lessons to teach us about how much we are actually able to know, about how difficult indeed it is to usefully apply even the little that we can know with some certainty to indeterminate things such as society or the economy. It ought to come as no surprise, then, that the high-water mark of modernism was also the nadir of respect for human life, the 20th century witnessing a long list of atrocities.
In reading Whitehead’s impressive and illuminative study of the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” that is the American police state, one thing becomes clear about our “age of authoritarianism,” its roots, and its development: The police state just is the modern state, a product of a specific time during which totalitarian government power seemed the wave of the future, its supposedly impartial, scientific institutions orchestrating and harmonizing all aspects of society. Such ideas about elite control and government power are characteristic components of high modernism, which James C. Scott describes as “the ideology par excellence of the bureaucratic intelligentsia, technicians, planners, and engineers.” It also happens to be the ideology of the “oligarchic elite of government and corporate interests” that now rule in the United States.
Whitehead demonstrates that the complicity of America’s largest and most powerful corporations has been necessary for the execution of the Orwellian surveillance plan and tyrannical over-criminalization instituted by the federal government. We learn once again that these alliances are a feature of historical fascism, a system of political economy that blurs the lines between economic institutions and those of the formal state.
Perhaps no element of America’s unique fascism establishes this blurriness more clearly than the defense industry. To help us understand the military-industrial complex’s transformation of American government, Whitehead borrows constitutional law scholar Arthur Miller’s use of the idea of syzygy. Syzygy is “the conjunction of two organisms without either of them losing its identity,” and libertarian thinkers have long remarked that the concerted growth of big business and big government has redounded to the benefit of both. It is a great and often very useful myth that one of the two apparent sides extends its power and influence only to the detriment of the other, as if the two weren’t aligned in their interests, even made up of the same rotating core of elites. The myth’s believers may not have noticed that our congressmen become lobbyists, that our top military and intelligence officials become defense-industry executives, that our political institutions are hopelessly intertwined with Big Banks, Big Pharma, Big Defense — the list goes on.
We are the enemy.
The real political contest does not pit conservatives against liberals, Republicans against Democrats, but instead positions the power elite against all the rest of us; Whitehead understands that this contest, libertarians versus authoritarians, cuts through partisanship and cable news punditry. As John Stuart Mill said in On Liberty, genuine progress, that is, movement in the direction of liberty, is necessarily “antagonistic to the sway of Custom,” “the spirit of liberty” aiming at a far freer, and therefore radically different, world than the one offered by tradition and convention. On the other hand, insofar as modernity and “progress” have made themselves the enemies of the spontaneous orderings of a free, natural society, libertarians must look — often quite conservatively — for a revival of those self-organized societal institutions that have been suppressed by the modern state, treated as rivals to its machinery of power.
For these reasons, libertarians may at once be both conservative and radical in orientation. Where liberty is a constant, a principle that endures from age to age, terms like “conservative” and “progressive” are relative and contingent. We should expect to find among both groups apologists for and opponents of the police state described in Battlefield America. And the police state has been searching methodically for its potential ideological enemies. Whitehead describes two Department of Homeland Security reports, released in 2009, that define as “Rightwing Extremists” those who “are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely.” As Whitehead notes, “These reports indicate that for the government, so-called extremism is not a partisan matter. Anyone seen as opposing the government — whether they’re Left, Right, or somewhere in between — is a target….”
As a corollary of traducing libertarians as “Rightwing Extremists,” Whitehead observes that the American police state has made it increasingly dangerous to own a firearm, even completely legally; “possessing one,” he writes, “can now get you pulled over, searched, arrested, subjected to all manner of surveillance, treated as a suspect without ever having committed a crime, shot at, and killed.”
Of course, the agents of the state, equipped with hand-me-down military-grade weaponry, will never have their guns taken from them, will never be harassed for exercising a legitimate right — or even for needlessly and abusively harassing others. Battlefield America points out the deep hypocrisy and injustice of disarming peaceful citizens while police officers “are rarely given more than a slap on the wrist” for improper uses of their weapons against unarmed Americans. Quite contrary to the oft-repeated canard that full and consistent respect for the fundamental right to own a firearm leads necessarily to a violent culture, Whitehead contends that we ought to reassess the U.S. government’s role in creating that culture. Government at all levels actively cultivates “the steady diet of violence that permeates everything in our culture,” the trappings of a pernicious military worship everywhere at hand.
It is government, not perfectly nonviolent firearm owners, that occupies our neighborhoods like a conquering foreign force, brandishing high-tech automatic weapons, assault vehicles, and grenade launchers. Homogenized culture and standardized education have weakened our natural responses to such displays and exercises of absolute power. Indeed, we have known little else, products of a political system that draws all power to its gravitational center. Steadily, the exceptions to the rule of law that protects our civil liberties have encroached upon the rule, narrowing its parameters, finally swallowing it altogether.
If it ever did in the first place, government today does not belong to us and is not responsible to us, representing the interests of a public-private faction of elites. Battlefield America calls for a new American Revolution, one of neither violent insurrection nor of the largely hollow propitiation of voting. Whitehead advises nonviolent resistance, directed by fundamental principles that teach us to “question everything” and escape the vapidity of the “electronic concentration camp,” the world of mindless hypnotism induced by our cherished electronic devices.
It is refreshing to see a libertarian counsel us — completely without condescension — to avoid the distractions of America’s culture of empty materialism and consumerism. Battlefield America understands the character and the importance of the moral choice before us, the choice between a free society and a society that is a prison “without visible walls.”
This article was originally published in the October 2015 edition of Future of Freedom.