Wholesale Crimes

by Victor Wallis

In their 1979 book The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, Noam Chomsky and the late Edward S. Herman drew a distinction between retail and wholesale acts of terrorism. Retail acts were those carried out by individuals or small groups; wholesale, those committed by vast national military forces.

Tom Engelhardt, in a recent column explaining the deeply criminal thrust of the Trump legacy, recalls to our attention a term coined in 2013 by journalist Nick Turse: terracide, meaning the total destruction of the earth-system — next to which the common crimes committed by isolated individuals pale in magnitude.

The distinction here is one of scale and not of principle, as in the classic juxtaposition of robbing a bank (“retail”) versus owning one and fleecing the entire public (“wholesale”). This point is easy enough for anyone to see, but, sadly, it has not become a matter of common awareness.

Why is it so difficult for people in the United States to perceive the criminality of the dominant priorities? This is where the political culture – aka the politics of mass deception – comes into play.

The political culture is many-faced, depending on which part of the public is being addressed. Above all, the political culture is shaped not only by those most fervently committed to a particular agenda, but also by all those who serve the central actors as buffers or enablers.

Typically, the buffers or enablers try to project a certain distance between themselves and the main actors. This was exemplified in the anonymous New York Times column of Sept. 5, whose author denounced Trump while embracing the Trump agenda.

Such dissociation, however, is fraudulent. The fit between Trump’s persona and his government’s agenda is not accidental. The agenda cannot be rationally defended. It rests on lies – most conspicuously, about the climate crisis – and therefore requires shameless hacks to defend it.

Not all of them are exactly like Trump, of course, but Trump got to play the flagship role because of the media’s wall-to-wall coverage of him throughout the run-up to the 2016 election.

Another type of enabler is the evasive lawyer, whom we now see in the person of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Where Trump peddles the dominant agenda with bombast (sometimes embarrassing to his staff-enablers), Kavanaugh and his strategists rely on stealth, specifically, concealing the legal trickery in which he took part in advancing the anti-popular agenda (e.g., on reproductive rights) of the Bush administration (see William Rivers Pitt’s incisive analysis). Behind Kavanaugh’s evasiveness lies an unambiguous commitment to corporate interests over citizen rights, as illustrated in his contention that Net Neutrality violates the free-speech rights of corporations.

A less direct but no less vital set of enablers is Trump’s “loyal opposition”: the top Democrats and the corporate media, who in this context act very much as a unit. Basically, they have legitimized Trump by failing to offer policies in the interest of the majority and then by attacking both his election and his administration on false grounds – focusing disproportional attention on alleged Russian influences and not giving the electorate the understanding and the organizational tools that they would need in order to effectively advance an alternative agenda.

The Democrats out of power get to play the role of “good guys,” but their unwillingness to advocate and work toward ambitious policy changes means that when they return to office, they will succeed only in driving a still passive citizenry back into the arms of the Republicans.

This dynamic is particularly upsetting when we consider how little time remains to halt the course toward environmental catastrophe – the terracide that Engelhardt speaks of. It’s a matter of urgency to get rid of profit-driven economic decisions and replace them with a structure in which decisions are grounded in the real interests of the natural world and of human society as a whole. Until such a structure is attained, the currently dominant forces will only tighten their grip even further, thereby accelerating the drive to destruction.

Victor Wallis is a professor of Liberal Arts at the Berklee College of Music. He was for twenty years the managing editor of Socialism and Democracy and has been writing on ecological issues since the early 1990s. His writings have appeared in journals such as Monthly Review and New Political Science, and have been translated into thirteen languages.

He is the author of the book Red-Green Revolution, published by this magazine’s parent company, Political Animal Press.

Image: Earth as a crime scene, courtesy of Interpol.


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  1. Dick M.

    A propos of the wholesale-retail distinction, it was Marx himself who wrote somewhere (was it in the “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844”?) to the effect that the cheat robs you by charging more than the fair price, while the capitalist robs everyone by creating that price

    • Stefan Schindler

      Well said, mon ami. I doubt Victor would disagree. His book is, after all, subtitled “Ecosocialism” — his bow to Marx when properly understood as having outlined both egalitarian economics and ecological sanity, and their necessary connection. I view the early Marx as an existentialist, because he offers an astute diagnosis of the polymorphously perverse “alienation” which haunts and undermines Western “civilization.”

  2. Stefan Schindler

    Bravo, Victor. Another astute and timely article. Profoundly important, beautifully written, and making just the right connections — as always. Thanks for your endlessly edifying inspirations, even if they necessarily force us to face the starkness of our national and global situation, while yet, thankfully, offering guidelines for sane and pragmatic rectification.

  3. Stefan Schindler

    I shared your essay on my Facebook timeline, and here’s what I wrote: A PROFOUNDLY IMPORTANT ARTICLE, BY ONE ONE OF THE GREAT SAGES OF OUR TIME. VICTOR WALLIS ON “WHOLESALE CRIMES.” Lucid, astute, succinct — this brief essay outlines the most urgent issues confronting us, both nationally and globally, and offers pragmatic solutions … ecological, economic, and political. To put a spiritual spin on Victor’s secular diagnosis — Jesus was born in a manger for a reason, yet even now the earth is being crucified … by billionaire predators and their enabling political lapdogs. To know the facts is to be awake, and to be awake is to have the power to influence sane and pragmatic change. Our collective survival is at stake, and so is what’s left of our democratic rights.

  4. Stefan Schindler

    PS: I’ll fix the “Willis” and change it to “Wallis” on Facebook. Sorry about that. Wish I could change it here. Maybe the editors can. Inadvertently, though, I fused you with Willis Harman, who wrote GLOBAL MIND CHANGE , in which he outlines some of your own most salient points.

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