Fredric Jameson's War Machine

The total acceptability of militarism extends well beyond the neoconservatives, the racists, the Republicans, the liberal humanitarian warriors, the Democrats, and the masses of political “independents” who find any talk of dismantling the U.S. military scandalous. Fredric Jameson is an otherwise leftist intellectual who’s put out a book, edited by Slavoj Zizek, in which he proposes universal conscription into the military for every U.S. resident. In subsequent chapters, other purportedly leftist intellectuals critique Jameson’s proposal with hardly a hint of concern at such an expansion of a machine of mass murder. Jameson adds an Epilogue in which he mentions the problem not at all.

What Jameson wants is a vision of Utopia. His book is called An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army. He wants to nationalize banks and insurance companies, seize and presumably shut down fossil fuel operations, impose draconian taxes on large corporations, abolish inheritance, create a guaranteed basic income, abolish NATO, create popular control of the media, ban rightwing propaganda, create universal Wi-Fi, make college free, pay teachers well, make healthcare free, etc.

Sounds great! Where do I sign up?

Jameson’s answer is: at the Army recruiting station. To which I reply: go get yourself a different subservient order-taker willing to participate in mass murder.

Ah, but Jameson says his military won’t fight any wars. Except for the wars it fights. Or something.

Utopianism is seriously much needed. But this is pathetic desperation. This is a thousand times more desperate than Ralph Nader asking the billionaires to save us. This is Clinton voters. This is Trump voters.

And this is U.S. blindness to the merits of the rest of the world. Few other countries in any way approach the militarized environmental destruction and death generated by the United States. This country lags very far behind in sustainability, peace, education, health, security, and happiness. The first step toward Utopia need not be such a harebrained scheme as a total takeover by the military. The first step should be catching up with places like Scandinavia in the realm of economics, or Costa Rica in the realm of demilitarization — or indeed realizing full compliance with Japan’s Article Nine, as mentioned in Zizek’s book. (For how Scandinavia got where it is, read Viking Economics by George Lakey. It had nothing to do with forcing kids, grandparents, and peace advocates into an out of control imperial military.)

In the United States, it is the liberals in Congress who want to impose selective service on women, and who celebrate every new demographic admitted into greater status in the military. The “progressive” vision is now of slightly or radically leftist economics, side by side with a heaping platter of militarized nationalism (to the tune of $1 trillion per year) — with the very idea of internationalism banished from consideration. The reformist view of the ever expanding American Dream is of the gradual democratization of mass murder. Bombing victims across the world may soon be able to look forward to being bombed by the first female U.S. president. Jameson’s proposal is a radical advance in this same direction.

I hesitate to call attention to Jameson’s book because it is so bad and this trend so insidious. But, in fact, the bits of his essay and of those critiquing it that address universal conscription, despite its centrality to Jameson’s project, are few and far between. They could be contained in a small brochure. The rest of the book is a rambling assortment of observations on everything from psychoanalysis to Marxism to whatever cultural abomination Zizek just stumbled across. Much of this other material is useful or entertaining, but it stands in contrast to the apparently dim-witted acceptance of the inevitability of militarism.

Jameson is adamant that we can reject the inevitability of capitalism, and of just about anything else we see fit. “Human nature” he points out, quite rightly, does not exist. And yet, the notion that the only place where a U.S. government could ever put any serious money is the military is silently accepted for many pages and then explicitly stated as fact: “[A] civilian population — or its government — is unlikely to spend the tax money warfare demands on purely abstract and theoretical peacetime research.”

That sounds like a description of the current U.S. government, not all governments past and future. A civilian population is unlikely as hell to accept universal permanent conscription into a military. That, not investment in peaceful industries, would be unprecedented.

Jameson, you’ll notice, relies on “warfare” to motivate the power of his idea of using the military for social and political change. That makes sense, as a military is, by definition, an institution used for waging war. And yet, Jameson imagines that his military won’t wage wars — sort of — but will for some reason go on being funded anyway — and with a dramatic increase.

A military, Jameson maintains, is a way to compel people to mix with each other and form a community across all the usual lines of division. It’s also a way to compel people to do exactly what they are ordered to do at every hour of the day and night, from what to eat to when to defecate, and to condition them to commit atrocities on command without stopping to think. That’s not incidental to what a military is. Jameson hardly addresses the question of why he wants a universal military rather than, say, a universal civilian conservation corps. He describes his proposal as “the conscription of the entire population into some glorified National Guard.” Could the existing National Guard be more glorified than its advertisements now depict it? It’s so misleadingly glorified already that Jameson mistakenly suggests that the Guard answers only to state governments, even as Washington has sent it off to foreign wars with virtually no resistance from the states.

The United States has troops in 175 nations. Would it dramatically add to them? Expand into the remaining holdouts? Bring all the troops home? Jameson doesn’t say. The United States is bombing seven nations that we know of. Would that increase or decrease? Here’s all that Jameson says:

“[T]he body of eligible draftees would be increased by including everyone from sixteen to fifty, or if you prefer, sixty years of age: that is, virtually the entire adult population. [I can hear the cries of discrimination against 61 year-olds coming, can’t you?] Such an unmanageable body would henceforth be incapable of waging foreign wars, let alone carrying out successful coups. In order to emphasize the universality of the process, let’s add that the handicapped would all be found appropriate positions in the system, and that pacifists and conscientious objectors would be places in control of arms development, arms storage, and the like.”

And that’s it. Because the military would have more troops, it would be “incapable” of fighting wars. Can you imagine presenting that idea to the Pentagon? I would expect a response of “Yeeeeeeaaaah, sure, that’s exactly what it would take to shut us down. Just give us a couple hundred million more troops and all will be well. We’ll just do a bit of global tidying up, first, but there’ll be peace in no time. Guaranteed.”

And the “pacifists” and people with consciences would be assigned to work on weaponry? And they’d accept that? Millions of them? And the weaponry would be needed for the wars that wouldn’t be happening any more?

Jameson, like many a well-meaning peace activist, would like the military to do the sort of stuff you see in National Guard ads: disaster relief, humanitarian aid. But the military does that only when and only as far as it’s useful to its campaign to violently dominate the Earth. And doing disaster relief does not require total abject subservience. Participants in that kind of work don’t have to be conditioned to kill and face death. They can be treated with the sort of respect that helps make them participants in a democratic-socialist utopia, rather than the sort of contempt that helps lead them to committing suicide outside a VA hospital admissions office.

Jameson praises the idea of “an essentially defensive war” which he attributes to Jaurès, and the importance of “discipline” which he attributes to Trotsky. Jameson likes the military, and he stresses that in his utopia the “universal military” would be the end-state, not a transition period. In that end-state, the military would take over everything else from education to healthcare.

Jameson comes close to acknowledging that there might be some people who would object to this on the grounds that the military industrial complex generates mass murder. He says that he is up against two fears: fear of the military and fear of any utopia. He then addresses the latter, dragging in Freud, Trotsky, Kant, and others to help him. He doesn’t spare one word for the former. He later claims that the real reason people are resistant to the idea of using the military is because within the military people are compelled to associate with those from other social classes. (Oh the horror!)

But, fifty-six pages in, Jameson “reminds” the reader of something he hadn’t previously touched on: “It is worth reminding the reader that the universal army here proposed is no longer the professional army responsible for any number of bloody and reactionary coups d’etat in recent times, whose ruthlessness and authoritarian or dictatorial mentality cannot but inspire horror and whose still vivid memory will certainly astonish anyone at the prospect of entrusting a state or an entire society to its control.” But why is the new military nothing like the old one? What makes it different? How, for that matter, is it controlled at all, as it takes over power from the civilian government? Is it imagined as a direct democracy?

Then why don’t we just imagine a direct democracy without the military, and work to achieve it, which seems far more likely to be done in a civilian context?

In Jameson’s militarized future, he mentions — again, as if we should have already known it — that “everyone is trained in the use of weapons and nobody is allowed to possess them except in limited and carefully specified situations.” Such as in wars? Check out this passage from Zizek’s “critique” of Jameson:

“Jameson’s army is, of course, a ‘barred army,’ an army with no wars . . . (And how would this army operate in an actual war, which is becoming more and more likely in today’s multicentric world?)”

Did you catch that? Zizek claims this army will fight no wars. Then he wonders exactly how it will fight its wars. And while the U.S. military has troops and bombing campaigns underway in seven countries, and “special” forces fighting in dozens more, Zizek is worried that there might be a war someday.

And would that war be driven by weapons sales? By military provocation? By militarized culture? By hostile “diplomacy” grounded in imperialistic militarism? No, it couldn’t possibly be. For one thing, none of the words involved are as fancy as “multicentric.” Surely the problem — albeit a minor and tangential one — is that the multicentric nature of the world may start a war soon. Zizek goes on to state that, at a public event, Jameson has envisioned the means of creating his universal army in strictly Shock Doctrine terms, as an opportunistic response to a disaster or upheaval.

I agree with Jameson only on the premise with which he begins his hunt for a utopia, namely that the usual strategies are sterile or dead. But that’s no reason to invent a guaranteed catastrophe and seek to impose it by the most antidemocratic means, especially when numerous other nations are already pointing the way toward a better world. The way to a progressive economic future in which the rich are taxed and the poor can prosper can only come through redirecting the unfathomable funds that are being dumped into war preparations. That Republicans and Democrats universally ignore that is no reason for Jameson to join them.