Comments to Chris Hedges‘ Treason of Intellectuals on Truthdig, (http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/04/01-0) and those related to Obama’s intention to cut Social Security and Medicare on Firedog lake, suggest that we are witnessing a decisive change in the meaning of ‘leadership’.
From huntsmen to kings, there have always been leaders. Until recently, this fact was part of conventional wisdom, and yet, with the advent of deliberative chambers, the notion had already began to change. Instead of the bravest and cleverest male being recognized by his peers as their uncontested leader, interest groups began to dilute a king’s power. With the advent of banking and industry, hereditary kings required the knowledge of ‘gray eminences’ to guide them. In the twentieth century, as all-powerful kings were replaced with democracies run by presidents, political parties made opposition to power legitimate, and money began to talk.
And yet, until the end of World War II, the concept of ‘leader’ remained intact, embodied in images of a smiling Roosevelt, a ranting Hitler and a cunning Stalin. Until recently there could be no wars without leaders: the sovereign on horseback flanked by standard bearers was durably replaced by a captain whose bravery and fairness commanded the respect of his troops. Leaders are also indispensable when ‘classes’ make history. The French Revolution was prepared by the writings of countless intellectuals such as Voltaire and Rousseau. But without the rise of leaders such as Danton and St. Just – whatever their later sins – the desperation of the French peasants would never have coagulated into the force that took the Bastille. The same holds true for the Russian Revolution, prepared by writers like Tolstoi and Dostoievski, but implemented thanks to the leadership of Lenin and his comrades.
After a failed campaign against it by the West, the Russian revolution of 1917 gave rise to European-wide efforts to deflect its influence, leading to fascist governments in Italy and Germany and eventually to World War II. That conflict, led by towering military leaders such as Eisenhower and MacArthur, put the brakes on a system in which the state and industry cooperate to secure the obedience of the many to the few. However it did not adjudicate the antagonism between liberal markets and central planning. There followed half a century of hot and cold wars against regimes intent on securing a reasonable share of wealth for the most, as opposed to the greatest share for the few.
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the release from its orbit of the countries of Eastern Europe, the struggle against specific, really existing socialist governments morphed into a worldwide campaign against an increasingly demanding many by generals beholden to CEO’s. As blog comments are beginning to recognize, fascism has achieved an astounding resurrection. Thanks to drones and electronic communication, a global financial and industrial elite can now realize Hitler’s’ dream of conquering the world, without requiring an identifiable leader, however tempting it may be to ascribe that role to recent American presidents.
Obama (referred to in one blog comment as ‘Obomber’) is seen either as a closet conservative who made progressive promises in order to get elected, or as powerless in the face of Republican stonewalling. I believe more disturbingly that this intelligent, educated and deft president thought he could manipulate the power elite, but quickly found out he would be putting his life on the line.
Whatever the reasons for Obama’s betrayal, the really significant fact is that legitimate government counterbalanced by an identifiable opposition has been replaced by Eisenhower’s oft-cited ‘military-industrial complex’. That entity is no longer the powerful element of society that he knew, which could be kept in check: it has grown to replace the concept of legitimate government counterbalanced by a legitimate opposition, and consigned the concept of leader to the dustbin.
Last year Chris Hedges put his freedom on the line by suing members of the U.S. government over section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act that authorizes the president to detain individuals indefinitely without habeas corpus. He was later joined by other activists including Noam Chomsky and Daniel Ellsberg. A district court judge ruled the law unconstitutional but the administration has obtained a stay of that decision by the Supreme Court pending its appeal to that body.
I totally agree with Chris Hedges’s that if imprisonment without a hearing is judged constitutional by the highest court in the land, we will be living under a fascist dictatorship, and with his indictment of intellectuals who continue to play it safe. But we must remember the fate of German intellectuals who tried to warn their countrymen of the growing danger: those who did not leave in time died in concentration camps. And we must ask ourselves whether, in the absence of mass leaders, the pen can indeed be mightier than the sword.