What is exceptional about America is its culture of sadism.
Original illustration by Mr. Fish
Don’t be fooled by Joe Biden. He knows his infrastructure and education bills have as much chance at becoming law as the $15-dollar minimum wage or the $2,000 stimulus checks he promised us as a candidate. He knows his American Jobs Plan will never create “millions of good paying jobs – jobs Americans can raise their families on” any more than NAFTA, which he supported, would, as was also promised, create millions of good paying jobs. His mantra of “buy American” is worthless. He knows the vast majority of our consumer electronics, apparel, furniture and industrial supplies are made in China by workers who earn an average of one or two dollars an hour and lack unions and basic labor rights.
He knows his call to lower deductibles and prescription drug costs in the Affordable Care Act will never be permitted by the corporations that profit from health care. He knows the corporate donors that fund the Democratic Party will ensure their lobbyists will continue to write the laws that guarantee they pay little or no taxes. He knows the corporate subsidies and tax incentives he proposes as a solution to the climate crisis will do nothing to halt oil and gas fracking, shut down coal-fired plants or halt the construction of new pipelines for gas-fired power plants. His promises of reform have no more weight than those peddled by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who Biden slavishly served and who also promised social equality while betraying working men and women.
The grinding machinery of predatory capitalism, and the sadism that defines it, will poison the society as mercilessly under Biden as it did when Donald Trump was conducting his Twitter presidency.
Biden is the epitome of the empty, amoral creature produced by our system of legalized bribery. His long political career in Congress was defined by representing the interests of big business, especially the credit card companies based in Delaware. He was nicknamed Senator Credit Card. He has always glibly told the public what it wants to hear and then sold them out. He was a prominent promoter and architect of a generation of federal “tough on crime” laws that helped militarize the nation’s police and more than doubled the population of the world’s largest prison system with harsh mandatory sentencing guidelines and laws that put people in prison for life for nonviolent drug crimes, even as his son struggled with addiction. He was a principal author of the Patriot Act, which began the stripping away of our most basic civil liberties. And there has never been a weapons system, or a war, he did not support.
Nothing substantial will change under Biden, despite the hyperventilating about him being the next FDR. Biden’s request for $715 billion for the Defense Department in fiscal year 2022, a $11.3 billion (1.6 percent) increase over 2021, will support the disastrous military provocations with China and Russia he embraces, the endless wars in the Middle East and the bloated defense industry. Wholesale government surveillance will not be curbed. Julian Assange will remain a target. The industries that were shipped overseas and the well-paying unionized jobs will not return. The grinding machinery of predatory capitalism, and the sadism that defines it, will poison the society as mercilessly under Biden as it did when Donald Trump was conducting his Twitter presidency.
Sadism now defines nearly every cultural, social and political experience in the United States. It is expressed in the greed of an oligarchic elite that has seen its wealth increase during the pandemic by $1.1 trillion while the country has suffered the sharpest rise in its poverty rate in more than 50 years. It is expressed in extra-judicial killings by police in cities such as Minneapolis. It is expressed in our complicity in Israel’s wholesale killing of unarmed Palestinians, the humanitarian crisis engendered by the war in Yemen and our reigns of terror in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. It is expressed in the torture in our prisons and black sites. It is expressed in the separation of children from their undocumented parents, where they are held as if they were dogs in a kennel.
The historian Johan Huizinga, writing about the twilight of the middle ages, argued that as things fall apart sadism is embraced as a way to cope with the hostility of an indifferent universe. No longer bound to a common purpose, a ruptured society retreats into the cult of the self. It celebrates, as do corporations on Wall Street or mass culture through reality television shows, the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation; a penchant for lying, deception and manipulation; and the incapacity for remorse or guilt. Get what you can, as fast as you can, before someone else gets it. This is the state of nature, the “war of all against all,” Thomas Hobbes saw as the consequence of social collapse, a world in which life becomes “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” And this sadism, as Friedrich Nietzsche understood, fuels a perverted, sadistic pleasure.
The only way out for most Americans is to serve, as Biden does, the sadistic machine. The impoverishment of the working class has conditioned tens of millions of Americans to accept being recruited into the service of the militarized police that function as lethal armies of internal occupation; a military that carries out reigns of terror in foreign occupations; intelligence agencies that torture in global black sites; the government’s vast network of spying on the citizenry; the theft of personal information by credit agencies and digital media; the largest prison system in the world; an immigration service that hunts down people who have never committed a crime and separates children from their parents to pack them in warehouses; a court system that condemns the poor to decades of incarceration, often for nonviolent crimes, and denies them a jury trial; companies that carry out the dirty work of evictions, shutting off utilities, including water, collecting usurious debts that force people into bankruptcy and denying health services to those that cannot pay; banks and payday lenders that burden the destitute with predatory, high-interest loans; and a financial system designed to keep most of the country locked in a crippling debt peonage as the wealth of the oligarchic elite swells to levels unseen in American history.
These are some of the few jobs that are well compensated. They bring with them feelings of omnipotence, for the victims are largely powerless. In service to the state or corporations, employees can abuse, humiliate and even kill with impunity, as the near daily murder of unarmed civilians by the police illustrates. This service to monolithic centers of power absolves people of moral choice. It imparts a God-like omnipotence.
We know what this sadism looks like. It looks like Derek Chauvin nonchalantly choking to death George Floyd as his police colleagues watch impassively. It looks like Andrew Brown Jr. shot five times by police in North Carolina, including once in the back of the head. It looks like Abner Louima, who had a broomstick pushed up his rectum by police in a bathroom at the 70th Precinct station house in Brooklyn, requiring three major operations to repair the internal injuries. It looks like Navy Seal Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher randomly shooting to death unarmed civilians and using a hunting knife to repeatedly stab to death an injured, sedated 17-year-old Iraqi prisoner and then photographing himself with the corpse. It looks like Iraqi civilians, few of whom had anything to do with the insurgency, naked, bound, beaten and sexually humiliated and raped, and at times murdered, by army guards and private contractors in Abu Ghraib. Prisoners in Abu Ghraib were routinely dragged across the prison floor by a rope tied to their penises and chemical lights were used to sodomize them or snapped open so the phosphoric liquid could be poured over their naked bodies. It looks like women who are tortured, beaten, degraded and sexually violated, often by numerous men, in porn films, who are then discarded after a few weeks or months with severe trauma, along with sexually transmitted diseases and vaginal and anal tears that must be repaired surgically.
Sadistic societies condemn segments of the population – in America these are poor Blacks, Muslims, the undocumented, the LGBTQ community, radical anti-capitalists, intellectuals – as human refuse. They are viewed as social contaminants. Laws, institutions and bureaucratic structures are built in sadistic societies that function, in the words of Max Weber, as an “inanimate machine.” The machine forces most people into the mass, but it allows some willing to do its dirty work to rise above the multitude. Those that carry out the sadism on behalf of the power elite fear being pushed back into the mass. For this reason, they energetically carry out the degradation, cruelty and sadism the machine demands. The more they insult, persecute, torture, humiliate and kill, the more they seem to magically widen the divide between themselves and their victims. This is why Black police and corrections officers can be as cruel, and sometimes crueler, than their white counterparts.
The sadism eradicates, at least momentarily, the sadist’s feelings of worthlessness, vulnerability and susceptibility to pain and death. It imparts pleasure. I was beaten by Saudi military police and later by Saddam Hussein’s secret police when I was taken prisoner after the first Gulf War. The goons carrying out my beatings clearly enjoyed them. Israel’s abuse of the Palestinians, the assaults of Muslims and girls and women in India and the denigration of Muslims in the countries we occupy are part of a global breakdown that extends beyond the United States.
Wilhelm Reich in “The Mass Psychology of Fascism” and Klaus Theweleit in “Male Fantasies” argue that sadism, along with a grotesque hyper-masculinity, rather than any coherent belief system, is the core of fascism, although communist regimes in China and the Soviet Union could be as murderous and sadistic as their fascist counterparts.
Jean Amery, who was in the Belgian resistance in World War II and who was captured and tortured by the Gestapo in 1943, defines sadism “as the radical negation of the other, the simultaneous denial of both the social principle and the reality principle. In the sadist’s world, torture, destruction, and death are triumphant: and such a world clearly has no hope of survival. On the contrary, he desires to transcend the world, to achieve total sovereignty by negating fellow human beings – which he sees as representing a particular kind of ‘hell.’”
Amery’s point is important. A sadistic society is about collective self-destruction. It is the apotheosis of a society deformed by overwhelming experiences of loss, alienation and stasis. The only way left to affirm yourself in failed societies is to destroy. Johan Huizinga in his book “Waning of the Middle Ages” noted that that the dissolution of medieval society provoked “the violent tenor of life.” Today, this “violent tenor of life” drives people to carry out police murders, evictions of families, court-ordered bankruptcies, the denial of medical care to the sick, suicide bombings and mass shootings.
As the sociologist Emil Durkheim understood, those who seek the annihilation of others are driven by desires for self-annihilation. Sadism imparts the rush and pleasure, often with heavy sexual overtones, which lures us towards what Sigmund Freud called the death instinct, the instinct to destroy all forms of life, including our own. When enveloped by a death-saturated world death, ironically, is embraced as the cure.
Corporate capitalism, which has perverted the values of American society to commodify its every aspect, including human beings and the natural world, insists that the dictates of the market should govern our existence, a belief infused with sadism. It is about the pleasure derived from exploiting others, as Frederick Nietzsche wrote in “On the Genealogy of Morals:”
Let’s clarify the logic of this whole method of compensation—it is weird enough. The equivalency is given in this way: instead of an advantage making up directly for the harm (hence, instead of compensation in gold, land, possessions of some sort or another), the creditor is given a kind of pleasure as repayment and compensation—the pleasure of being allowed to discharge his power on a powerless person without having to think about it, the delight in “de fair le mal pour le plaisir de le faire” [doing wrong for the pleasure of doing it],the enjoyment of violation.
This enjoyment is more highly prized the lower and baser the debtor stands in the social order, and it can easily seem to the creditor a delicious mouthful, even a foretaste of a higher rank. By means of the “punishment” of the debtor, the creditor participates in a right belonging to the masters. Finally he himself for once comes to the lofty feeling of despising a being as someone “below himself,” as someone he is entitled to mistreat—or at least, in the event that the real force of punishment, of inflicting punishment, has already been transferred to the “authorities,” the feeling of seeing the debtor despised and mistreated. The compensation thus consist of a permission for and right to cruelty.
Enron energy traders, in a dialogue that could have come from any large corporation, were caught on tape in 2000 discussing “stealing” from California, sticking it to “Grandma Millie.” Two traders, identified as Kevin and Bob, dismissed demands by California regulators for refunds because of the company’s constant price-gouging.
Kevin: So the rumor's true? They're fucking takin' all the money back from you guys? All those money you guys stole from those poor grandmothers in California?
Bob: Yeah, Grandma Millie, man. But she's the one who couldn't figure out how to fucking vote on the butterfly ballot.
Kevin: Yeah, now she wants her fucking money back for all the power you've charged for fucking $250 a megawatt hour.
Bob: You know – you know – you know, Grandma Millie, she's the one that Al Gore's fightin' for, you know?
Later in the same conversation, Kevin and Bob denigrate Californians.
Kevin: Oh, best thing that could happen is fucking an earthquake, let that thing float out to the Pacific and put 'em fucking candles.
Bob: I know. Those guys – just cut 'em off.
Kevin: They're so fucked and they're so like totally – –
Bob: They are so fucked.
We will not extract ourselves from predatory capitalism and its culture of sadism with meager government handouts. We will not extract ourselves because Biden’s slick speech writers and public relations specialists, who use polls and focus groups to feed back to us what we want to hear, can make us feel the administration is on our side. There is no good will in the Biden White House, the Congress, the courts, the media – which has become an echo chamber of the privileged classes – or corporate boardrooms. They are the enemy.
We will extract ourselves from this culture of sadism the way the dispossessed extracted themselves from the stranglehold of crony capitalism during the Great Depression, by organizing, protesting and disrupting the system until the ruling elites are forced to grant a measure of social and economic justice. The Bonus Army, World War I veterans who had been denied pension payments, set up huge encampments in Washington, which were violently dispersed by the army. Neighborhood groups, many of them members of the Wobblies or the Communist Party, in the 1930s physically prevented sheriff departments from evicting families.
In 1936 and 1937, the United Auto Workers union carried out a sit-down strike inside factories that crippled General Motors, forcing the company to recognize the union, raise wages and meet union demands for job protection and safe working conditions. It was one of the most important labor victories in American history and led to the entire automobile industry in the United States becoming unionized.
Farmers, forced into bankruptcy and foreclosures by the big banks and Wall Street, founded the Farmer’s Holiday Association to protest the seizure of family farms, one of the reasons bank robbers such as John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde and the Barker Gang were folk heroes. The farmers blocked roads and destroyed mountains of farm products, reducing supply and raising prices. The farmers, like unionized auto workers, endured widespread government surveillance and violent attacks from the FBI, company goons, hired gun thugs, militias and sheriff’s departments. But the militancy worked. The farmers forced the state to accept a de facto moratorium on farm foreclosures.
Mass demonstrations outside state capitals at the same time pressured state legislatures to block the collection of overdue mortgage payments. Tenant farmers and sharecroppers in the south unionized. The Department of Labor called their collective action a “miniature civil war.” The unemployed and the hungry throughout the country squatted in vacant homes and on vacant land forming shantytowns that were known as Hoovervilles. The destitute took over public buildings and public utilities. This constant pressure, not the good will of FDR, created the New Deal. He and his fellow oligarchs eventually understood that if there was not reform there would be revolution, something Roosevelt acknowledged in his private correspondence.
It is not until people are reintegrated into the society, not until corporate and oligarchic control over our educational, political and media systems are removed, not until we recover the ethic of the common good, that we have any hope of rebuilding the positive social bonds that foster a healthy society. History has amply illustrated how this process works. It is a game of fear. And until we make them afraid, until a terrified Joe Biden and the oligarchs he serves look out on a sea of pitchforks, we will not blunt the culture of sadism they have engineered.
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East Bureau Chief and Balkan Bureau Chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of the Emmy Award-nominated RT America show On Contact.
Copyright 2021 Chris Hedges