Roots of War, Barnet On Technocracy And Government Power

Feb. 1, 2023 [history] [politics] [books]

Richard Barnet was covering topics such as government monopolies on violence and technocracy decades before those terms would ever come into the forefront of today’s discourse. In his book, Roots of War, he wastes no time diving straight into the state’s monopoly on crime. While parsing through it, I had to keep reminding myself that the piece was originally published in 1972!

Individuals get medals, promotions, and honors by committing the same acts for the state for which they would be hanged or imprisoned in any other circumstance.

Barnet’s writing is not specifically through the lense of liberterianism, but it bleeds through in his choice of language while divulging about the motivations and psychology of those within the national security managerial class and the business partners who collaborate with them. He also covers the machinations involved in swaying public opinion. Below are some excerpts I found worth highlighting (in the order they appear throughout the book).

p. 38

The constitutional historian Edward Corwin has noted that each war the United States has fought has increased the power of the executive and speeded the centralization of the government. This is a process in which Lewis Mumford finds repeated throughout history. Centralized, bureaucratic government, or what he calls the Megamachine, is both the product and the cause of war.

p. 43, bottom

The mobilization of social science had an even more profound effect on the university. During the war government discovered that social scientists could be useful, particularly in the areas of testing opinion manipulation, and propaganda. Social scientists, organized by anthropologists such as Margaret Mead and Clyde Kluckhohn, flattered that the academic interests they had been pursuing for poor pay and with scant attention should now be deemed relevant to universal political questions, flocked to Washington to become “problem-solvers” for the government. In the process new techniques of analysis such as operations analysis, systems analysis, and game theory were refined.

p. 51

The slowness of social adaptation in the midst of rapid technological change poses one of the most serious threats to civilization. This is a problem inherent in government and indeed in all of human organization. The time-consuming process of education and experience people must go through to become capable of making judgements carries them into a strange new world in which the lessons are already obsolete. To a certain extent, conceptual lag is inherent in the human condition, but ~ it is positively courted in the national security bureaucracy.

p. 58

But the real client was the state, and most managers, when they came to weigh the risks and make high policy, left the hopes, fears, failures, and suffering of the nonelect out of the balance. The notion that the pursuit of foreign policy could have subtle, lasting effects on what was discovered in the late 1960’s as “the quality of life” in America, was utterly foreign to them.

He goes on to detail how the parasites carry themselves in complete detachment from the suffering they cause.

The national security managers as a class have not had the training or incentive to develop understanding, compassion or empathy for people in different circumstances from their own.

p. 74

Rostow had the optimism and the naivete and the nerve to visualize the denouement of the American Century. It was to be the technocrat’s peace. Vietnam was Armageddon. The communist scavenger would slink back into the night, defeated, and the American elect would proceed to organize the peace through technology. [The anticipated outcome by the parasite class]

p. 123

Each service embellishes “the threat” to serve its bureaucratic interests. The Office of Naval Intelligence is especially good at finding extra Soviet ships which Air Force intelligence always manages to miss. There are tens of thousands of mysterious objects in the Soviet Union which the Army is convinced are tanks but which any Air Force intelligence officer knows are really airplanes.

Where else have we seen “the threat” being embellished? Hmm…

p. 126

Yet the “conspiracy” concept does not fit the facts, because conspiracy, for the layman if not for the lawyer, implies some consciousness of guilt. Conspirators, according to popular understanding of the term, are men who plot to commit acts they know to be wrong. Here is the crux of the problem. The men who were ready in the Cuban missile crisis to risk civilization for prestige, for what Dean Acheson calls “the shadow of power”, and to destroy Indochina to save America’s reputation for toughness, to lie and kill on a grand scale, all believed that they were doing right, that, indeed, they were acting under duty. It is impossible to understand how dangerous the structures of the national security bureaucracy are without also understanding the system of absolution that operate within those structures. … Any organization that devotes so much of its resources to propaganda is bound to fall victim to a certain amount itself. Many of the statements on Vietnam, for example, were analogous to the kind of advertising claims which Jules Henry has dubbed “pecuniary pseudo-truth”.

On the next page, he describes a propagandistic concept of “atmospherics”.

One of the clearest analyses of pseudo-truth in the national security establishment came in the form of testimony by Air Force Secretary Harold Brown. Defending his budget request for a new bomber before a Congressional committee by claiming the Soviets were probably building one of their own, he observed: “The Air Foce view is at least as much a view that ‘they ought to have one’ as it is ‘they will have one.'” The repeated public claims in the Vietnam War that victory was around the corner were of this character. The claims were contradicted by all available intelligence and where sufficiently at odds with public reporting that no reasonably informed citizen could swallow them. They were meant to be taken literally no more than the claim that Seven Crown whisky “holds within its icy depths a world of summertime.” They were part of what national security managers like to call “atmospherics,” official expressions of confidence designed to pep up the public.

Want to live peacefully? Consider moving to a country which has just been defeated in wartime: p. 161

The American Supreme Commander in Germany was directed to proceed with denazification, disarmament, and decartelization. The Potsdam agreements between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union provided for the elimination of Germany’s war potential, decentralization of the economy, and drastic reduction of heavy industry. (Bold mine)

When people ask “Who is at the top of the pyramid, you crazy conspiracy loon?”, this does justice to the nuance involved in the inevitable non-answer: p. 178

These questions are complicated by a certain unavoidable lack of precision in the meaning of power. It is hard to be precise about the locus of power in a system as complex as the national security partnership. Power is an elusive notion meaning different things in different contexts. For one thing, it is not the same as influence. To say that David Rockefeller can always be heard on the American foreign policy toward Latin America or South Africa is not quite the same thing as saying he sets the policy. To say that John Foster Dulles was once a lawyer for the United Fruit Company does not mean that he was taking orders from the company when he authorized the CIA rescue operation of United Fruit properties in Guatemala. It is surely worth noting, but it does not dispose of the case.

p. 237

The supreme value persued by the new breed of corporate managers is efficiency. This is an improvement, to be sure, over glory, machismo, and the excitement of winning, which, it will be recalled, are so important to the national security managers. For those who can make a contribution to the rationalized world economy there will be rewards. But the stark truth is that more than half of the population of the world is literally useless to the managers of the multinational corporation and their counterparts in the Soviet and Chinese state enterprises, even as customers.

“Educating” the public is just code for deception. p. 242

The national security managers, as the Pentagon papers make clear, constantly talk to one another about the need to “educate” the public. In many cases this word, with all its noble traditions, is merely a euphamism for outright deception; in others, “education” is a code word for more subtle propaganda, the reinforcement of sterotypes, the stimulation of fears, and the queiting of disturbing doubts.

p. 246

There are only two ways to get sustained public attention and concern on foreign policy issues. The first is to dramatize a crisis and the second is to link the national security issue to democratic issues.

p. 247

Political scientists pictured the public as a sleeping beast that must be frightened into supporting foreign policies it could never understand, but which, once aroused, was extraordinarily fierce. For example, as Professor Thomas E. Bailey put it, “The more ignorant the citizen, the more bellicose and jingoistic…” Yet, as we shall see, the national security managers talking to one another worry far more about the latent pacifism and isolationism of the public than about its jingoism.

Page 270 reveals insight on their justifications for exaggeration of narratives and scare tactics as “necessary” instruments of policy. I won’t quote the whole section, in part to avoid making this a wall of text, but also to encourage one to seek out material from Roots of War.

The importance of blood sacrifice to psychopatic rulers is not just a meme. p. 280

The most effective device for instilling unitial public support for an American war is to shed American blood in small quantities. In the early planning documents on the escalation of the Vietnam War, John T. McNaughton and others used to talk about the symbolic importance of an American blood sacrifice. Not only was it necessary to risk losing your own citizens to convince the enemy of America’s “will and determination”, it was necessary to “spill American blood” to commit the American people. Canettie obeserves that the blood sacrifice is an essential ritual to any war: ‘Rulers who want to unleash war know very well that they must procure or invent a first victim. It need not be anyone of particular importance, and can be someone quite unknown. Nothing matters except his death; and it must be believed that the enemy is responsible for this. Every possible cause of his death is suppressed except one: his membership of the group to which one belongs oneself.’

The above most assuredly gets me thinking back to those days following September the 11th 2001. Anyone else?

The following page (281) delivers some further insight on propagandistic tools. Barnet highlights the importance that both fear and guilt play in pursuit of moulding public opinion. “Standing by our friends” and “Honoring our commitments” have been favorite tools of propagandists pulling these particular levers.

The real meat and potatos starts around page 290. If nothing else, at least read this portion onward if you ever find yourself in possession of a copy of Roots of War. Believe it or not, the book closes off on a positive note envisioning a society restructered in such a way that does not reward the managerial classes for acts of evil.