Book Review: State Power and Democracy


State Power and Democracy Before and During the Presidency of George W. Bush
by Andrew Kolin. 
New York, Macmillan/Palgrave, 2011.

In  a week where  the press is filled with stories of the FBI   preparing to “broaden” the power of its agents pretty much as they please to search for information on individuals and groups – to  go through their garbage and put them under various forms as scrutiny that most citizens would consider harassment, Andrew Kolin’s  impressive State Power and Democracy Before and During the Bush Administration is of special value and deserves as wide an audience as possible.
A  political scientist with an orientation toward both philosophy and history, Kolin has written a narrative connecting the growth of state power in the U.S. with the undermining of the rights of citizens. While he starts literally at the beginning, the work after the first two chapters focuses on the post World War II era, where the Cold War served as the context for the huge expansion of repressive state power at home and abroad, culminating in the Bush administration’s use of the 9/11 attacks to both consolidate and export internationally what Kolin sees as a police state. Kolin’s understanding of the role that ideological and institutional anti-Communism played in the development of what he sees today as a police state is particularly cogent.

Kolin’s work reminds me most of three scholars who have addressed similar issues.

First, his interpretation in many respects echoes that of Randolph Bourne, the Columbia University philosophy student who watched in horror as many of his famous Professors became apologists for World War I and Woodrow Wilson’s definition of it as a war to “make the world safe for Democracy.”

Bourne  argued powerfully that “war is the health of the state” and  portrayed the state as a self-perpetuating, self-aggrandizing force, as against the nation and the people.

In conjunction with private wealth, Bourne contended that the state seeks to use both fear and avarice to foster a herd mentality that will concentrate its power at the expense of liberty and democracy.
Bourne’s work, in its general rejection of state action, reflected anarchist tendencies. I would say that Kolin does also to some extent, in his minimizing of the positive role of expanding state power in advancing political, social, and economic policies in the interests of the people. But, to be fair to Kolin, the positive role of an expanding government to serve and protect the general welfare has been undermined thanks largely to the  militaristic anti-democratic policies  he highlights.  
Kolin’s work is also similar to that of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States in his debunking of the political power structure, whatever parties or individuals are leading government at a specific time.

Finally, his work reminds me  most of a lesser known brilliant text written in the 1970s, Lawrence Wittner's Cold War America which chronicles the devastating effects of an international and domestic cold war consensus on the gains  made by working people in the New Deal era and subsequently the devastating effects of the cold war induced Vietnam War on the civil rights movement, the peace movement and all social movements of the 1960s. It its later chapters, State Power and Democracy can be seen as a kind of sequel to Cold War America.

Kolin’s great strength is his accumulation of detailed evidence concerning what the agencies of the U.S. government were doing. As he  writes, “though control experiments… and torture to break down the individual’s self worth, employing sensory deprivation to cause the victims to  feel they were causing their own suffering” were developed by the CIA in the 1950s and 1960s, with the assistance of universities and hospital staffs whom the agency generously funded. 

The sort of manuals that  the press is discussing today have a long and sordid history long before the Bush II administration, appearing and re-appearing in Nixon and later Reagan era policies internationally and domestically.

Nor were the Democratic Party administrations of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton seriously different. Even in the background of the Watergate conspiracy, for example, little was done beyond expose to reign in state repression. In the Reagan years, the government learned to “live” with the exposes of its abuses, to do what public opinion and Congress often opposed its doing through both “private” and state sources of manipulation.

The last three chapters of Kolin’s work, portraying in great detail but the familiar and lesser known abuses of the Bush administration, the institutionalizing I would say of a state terroristic political culture in the name of fighting a “war against terrorism” (more open-ended than the Cold War).

Kolin concludes rather pessimistically, that the Obama administration has so far disappointed those saw it as a major break with the past. “With the Bush administration, America reached a perfected form of police state and while the Obama administration may initiate piecemeal reforms, it won’t disassemble its essence.”

But as the late Randolph Bourne wrote at the end of World War I, America is its people and its culture, not its state/government and those who profit by waving its flag and identifying that flag with the capitalist economic system and global military power.
Kolin concludes very positively with a call for “mass based democracy,” which “could eventually rules for the masses, not political and economic elites.” 

But to move toward such a government, one must have both a concrete vision and organizational structure. Socialism in its theoretical/scientific form has been the vision/theory of such mass based democracy in the U.S. and through the world. Trade unions and political parties committed to that socialist vision (the latter more directly than the former) have been the instruments of the struggle for a workers or peoples government.

Although Kolin has little enthusiasm so far for the Obama administration (on the issues he addresses he has little reason to) this is a book that President Obama should read and could profit from. It would provide him with far better advice on the conduct of foreign policy and domestic civil liberties than his Pentagon, Central Intelligence Agency and Justice Department advisors. Krolin defines what is a central problem of democracy in the United States and concludes with a call for the kind of government that really would produce "change we can believe in."

Post your comment

Comments are moderated. See guidelines here.


No one has commented on this page yet.

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments