Foreign War Has Not Made America a Garrison State

July 5, 2021 Topic: War Region: Americas Tags: WarTroopsDemocracyPoliticsForeign Policy

Foreign War Has Not Made America a Garrison State

For generations, Americans opposed to foreign wars have warned that they might result in the conversion of American society into a garrison state. But there are other ways in which foreign policy can undermine the economic, political, and social foundations of a democratic republic like the United States, to the point at which it becomes a different kind of regime.

WHILE THE garrison state saves national independence by sacrificing civil liberty, and the tributary state sacrifices national independence to preserve civil liberty (at least for local elites), the castle society sacrifices the state and loses both national independence and civil liberty.

If Cold War-era Finland symbolizes the tributary state, Somalia or post-Gaddafi Libya might symbolize the castle society today. The erosion or collapse of state institutions and central authority produces anarchy, in which individuals and communities are forced to defend themselves or seek protection from stateless mafias or insurgent groups.

Elements of the castle society have always existed in the United States. The movement of settlers into Western frontier areas in advance of adequate law enforcement produced the anarchic conditions of “the Wild West,” with bloody clashes among native Americans and settlers and widespread crime. Criminal gangs, often specializing in the sale of prohibited alcohol and drugs, have dominated urban neighborhoods in many American cities over the generations, sometimes in collusion with corrupt police and politicians. For its part, between Reconstruction and the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, the American South was a de facto state-within-a-state, with the paramilitary Ku Klux Klan often allied with the local social and political elites who controlled the one-party Democratic regime. In the post-World War II era in which U.S. troops occupied Japan and parts of Germany, the federal government was still struggling to assert its authority in the states of the former Confederacy.

A democratic republic is defined in part by the limitation of the objects of government. But within its legitimate realm, a democratic republican government must be able to protect its citizens from invasion, crime, economic immiseration, and disease—at least in part through public agencies staffed by civil servants and soldiers who are paid out of taxes.

The high-water mark of democratic republicanism in the United States was reached in the decades after World War II. Without becoming a tyranny, the government was strong enough to protect the borders, dismantle racial segregation, regulate the economy, eliminate diseases like polio, and wage cold war against the Communist bloc. At the same time, informal checks and balances operated in the social sphere, with powerful trade unions, political parties, and churches exercising what the economist John Kenneth Galbraith called “countervailing power” against concentrated industrial capital.

In contrast, the last half-century has seen the replacement of nation-building by nation-dismantling in the United States, at the hands of an increasingly homogeneous, rich, and powerful national oligarchy. The American managerial elite has crushed organized labor, to the point that fewer private-sector workers—around 6 percent—enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining than was the case under President Herbert Hoover. The political parties, once federations of autonomous state and local organizations, have become mere labels captured by billionaires who, like Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg, view the national political parties as brands to be captured.

America’s managerial elite, based now more in Silicon Valley and Wall Street than in the old industrial sectors of oil and gas and manufacturing, have employed tax avoidance to starve the federal government of revenue, by means of offshore tax havens. In 2015, for example, U.S.-based multinationals reported 43 percent of their foreign earnings as coming from five notorious tax havens—Bermuda, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland—even though only 4 percent of the workforce of the same companies resided in these jurisdictions. Like many American corporations, many of America’s rich are scofflaws, using tax shelters to avoid paying taxes. And those who do pay taxes frequently benefit by paying a lower tax on capital gains than cashiers and janitors and truckers pay on their labor income.

Using libertarian ideology as an excuse for slashing the government’s capacity to provide basic public order, the bipartisan American elite in the last half-century has “deinstitutionalized” many of the mentally ill—with the result that every large American city has a homeless population of individuals suffering from untreated psychiatric disorders or drug addiction. Meanwhile, under Democrats and Republicans alike, the U.S. government has tolerated the migration of millions of illegal immigrants to the United States to provide American employers with a pliant, low-wage workforce which is unprotected by labor laws and civil rights. 

“Authoritarianism” has been redefined in American public discourse to stigmatize what were formerly considered ordinary functions of government. For example, attempts to crack down on cross-border labor trafficking are often met with cries of “fascism!” In the summer of 2020, following the death in police custody of George Floyd, left-wing calls to “defund the police” contributed to the greatest wave of vandalism and murder in American cities since the urban riots of the 1960s.

As the public realm has been taken over in much of the country by mentally ill and sometimes dangerous vagrants, drug addicts, criminal gangs, and left-wing Antifa protestors, many Americans have retreated to fortified homes in suburban or rural areas and bought guns to defend themselves. Following the example of the Latin American upper classes, America’s managerial oligarchs tend to live in secure apartment towers or gated communities with their own private security forces. Many of the same progressive elites who denounce the idea of a wall on the American border pay top dollar for the walls that protect them and their families from anarchy and squalor inside American borders.

Not content to allow public authority to wither, America’s new ruling class has begun to govern the American people informally but directly, through the “private” institutions it controls—social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook and retail platforms like Amazon as well as by older infrastructures like the banking system. Twitter purged a president of the United States. YouTube and Amazon “disappear” content at variance with the left-wing social norms of the American plutocracy and its professional-class courtiers. The United States is drifting ever closer to adopting a Chinese-style “social credit” system that freezes citizens guilty of wrongthink out of bank loans, savings accounts, and air and bus and rail travel—albeit a social credit system run by nominally private corporations and financial institutions.

IN THE middle of the twentieth century, a case could be made that prolonged mobilization for war threatened to turn the United States into a garrison state. Today, despite numerous small peripheral wars and the overhang of presidential emergency powers from earlier crises, the United States is in less danger of becoming a garrison state than ever. The greatest threat to America’s future comes not from a totalitarian state bureaucracy in Washington, DC, but from unchecked private power at home and authoritarian state capitalism abroad.

Saving the United States from geopolitical weakness and domestic chaos requires a reassertion of the democratic republican state, at the expense of oligarchs at home and hostile great powers and labor- and drug-trafficking gangs abroad. Such a limited rebuilding of national state capacity will not turn America into a garrison state. But it may save the American republic from degenerating into a combination of a tributary state and a castle society.

Michael Lind is a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, a columnist for Tablet, and a fellow at New America. He is the author of The New Class War (2020) and The American Way of Strategy (2006).

Image: Flickr / The U.S. Army