Friday, March 7, 2008

"Jericho" as a dramatization of disaster capitalism

I'm not sure how many of my readers have followed the series Jericho. If not, it might be a good idea to check a few episodes of the series out as its story is pretty fascinating. The basic premise is that of a rural community in northwest Kansas (the fictitious town of Jericho) cut off from the rest of the world in the wake of a set of nuclear explosions which end up destroying a number of major urban areas around the US. Over the next several months, the residents struggle with basic survival, maintenance of some semblance of social order, developing some contact with surrounding communities, and redefining meaning in life in what is now a radically different world.

The second season (which as a mid-season replacement means we only get seven episodes) focuses on a national rebuilding of sorts. We learn that the US is now split up into three entities: the United States of America (which consists of all the states east of the Mississippi River, and whose capital is now Columbus, OH), the Allied States of America (most of the western states, with its capital in Cheyenne, WY), and Texas (which for the time being is operating as an independent nation, much like it did briefly in the 1800s prior to statehood). We have no idea as to what happens to Hawaii or Alaska.

The news that the residents of Jericho are receiving from the entity that controls their territory, the Allied States of America, is that the US is crumbling and that they're pretty close to getting Texas to join the new nation. In many respects, the Allied States government appears to operate much along the lines of a corporatist state that neoliberal economists (e.g., Milton Friedman) and politicians (think the Bush family, the Clintons, etc.) have dreamed of. Aside from maybe a military force, all other government functions are administered by private corporations - including a Halliburton-style corporation (the fictitious Jennings & Rall) that administers supplies, financial services, etc.; and a Blackwater-style Jennings & Rall subisidiary (Ravenwood) that administers "security" via its hired mercenaries.

As the series is winding down its second (and probably final) season, it's revealed that the nuclear attacks were an inside job. Turns out that a private corporation (Jennings & Rall) contracted to help the federal government in the early 1990s to make contingency plans for a nuclear terrorist attack had some hand - along with some high-level government officials - in bringing about those very attacks. And - surprise, surprise - look who's among the leadership of the Cheyenne-based Allied States of America. The viewers of Jericho now merely have to wait three episodes to see how the whole thing turns out.

I got hooked on the drama last summer when CBS re-aired the entire first season, and have been quite pleased with the direction the writers have taken for this season. It's serendipitous that I managed to get turned on to Jericho about the time I began to really dig on Naomi Klein's work. Much of the story in Jericho fits in quite nicely with the sort of analysis Klein offers in her recent book, The Shock Doctrine. I don't know how hip Jericho's writing and production team are to Klein's work, but they certainly have learned a few relevant lessons from both the 9/11 attacks as well as from the Hurricane Katrina disaster and aftermath.

Shock

The shock in Jericho begins with the residents initially noticing a mushroom cloud in the distance to the west of town - appearing to be from the Denver area (later it's confirmed that Denver was one of the locations hit). With the attacks, all life as it was previously known ends: no more telecommunications, no more shipments of Doritos and salad shooters, no electricity (save for that courtesy of emergency generators), and no easy means of pumping gas or diesel into one's vehicles. It doesn't take long for shortages of all types to become manifest, as the town's residents grow to realize that they are clearly on their own. Even the brief semblance of normality that takes hold when electricity and telecommunications are restored quickly evaporates when a second set of nuclear attacks (we later learn aimed at Iran and North Korea) take place (two ICBMs near Jericho are launched), and an electromagnetic pulse pretty well fries whatever electronic devices were operable (with the exception of one of the main characters, Hawkins, who has computer and phone equipment designed to withstand such pulses).

Taking advantage of the shock

After weathering an unusually harsh winter, a rogue band of mercenaries, and some looters who posed as Marines, Jericho's residents were ready for someone to make life "normal" again. The end of the first season hints at, and the second season reveals, the nature of that "someone": a new government. Before long, a blood feud between members of Jericho and a neighboring town (New Bern) has been put to an end, the town is put back on the grid, and the residents at least initially get the message that the nightmare is over. However, there is trouble in paradise.

propaganda

One thing that becomes clear in a hurry is that the folks running this Allied States of America are quite the historical revisionists. The school teachers are already complaining about the new textbooks that this government wants them to use - as the books refer to the US as "The First Republic" and describe that government as "weak" when it came to dealing with threats to its citizens. The president is a slick former senator who arrives at Jericho to give a speech that sounds like something out of the George W. Bush/Adolph Hitler playbook. The news that the residents receive places the blame for the terrorist attacks on North Korea and Iran (which were then nuked out of existence as far as we know). They're the "bad guys" and they've been dealt with.

A journalist that one of the show's main characters befriends seems wise to the nature of the new government, and that much of what he "reports" is pure b.s. That same journalist is conveniently killed off when he becomes a potential whistle-blower.

privatization of basic government functions

The way the Allied States of America functions in this particular drama can be best described as more like a corporate monopoly. A Halliburton-style entity seems have been contracted to handle nearly all of the administrative functions, with security handled primarily by a Blackwater-style entity. The only government employees that Jericho's residents encounter are some military personnel. Otherwise, everything from treasury, revenue, supplies, and postal services runs right through a private corporation with what appear to be no real oversight from the government. My guess is that whatever government exists in the fictitious ASA exists as little more than a storefront.

Needless to say, the monopolization by a private corporation with no real accountability leads to some issues of corruption. J&R seems to be hoarding doses of vaccines crucial to warding off a deadly virus. Donald Rumsfeld, who is on the board of Giliad Sciences which has been known to keep a tight reign on its supplies of medications for flu and AIDs (thus maximizing profit margins while those most at risk suffer needlessly) would no doubt be impressed. There is also the apparent issue of embezzlement that gets revealed in the most recent episode.

If one looks at the last three or so decades of history, we'll find that whenever a shock to the system is introduced - such as a coup or natural disaster - those wanting to capitalize on that shock act relatively quickly, while the average citizen is still disoriented, to put in place an economic system that will, as Milton Friedman would envision, maximize the "freedom" of capital. For a privileged few, it makes for some incredible profits - for the vast majority, though, increased poverty.

corporatist state vs the independent farmer and merchant

In the most recent episode of Jericho, local merchants are already finding that they're being squeezed out of existence. The same is also true for local farmers and ranchers. Needless to say, they're already complaining. If the new ASA order is using the Milton Friedman playbook, we would anticipate that the goal is to pretty much squeeze all the resources out of towns like Jericho. There's little room for the family farmer or the locally run grocer: if they're lucky, maybe they can get a job with Jennings & Rall, earn a fraction of what they might have earned otherwise, and probably relocate to the rapidly-growing urban center of Cheyenne. Any farms and ranches that eventually remain will probably be owned - if not in name, then certainly in practice - by Jennings & Rall. Any merchant that doesn't have the Jennings & Rall blessing is simply shut down. The new Jericho would probably become an impoverished place for whoever remains, with few exceptions.

mercenaries

Imposing a new order that no-one's really consented to is likely to create some friction, and one way or another any form of dissent or resistance would have to be squashed by whatever means are available. That's where Ravenwood comes in. The mercenaries working for Ravenwood are there to act in much the same way as the death squads of El Salvador, Guatamala, and Brazil. They exist to sufficiently terrorize the local residents into submitting to the new order. As of yet in the series, we haven't seen Ravenwood's goons use torture (which would certainly be expected, given the last few decades of disaster capitalism), but they've certainly proven adept at "disappearing" whomever they want with impunity.

resistance

Where the writers appear to be offering hope is in the resistance that already seems to be developing. Since it took a few months for the ASA to sufficiently consolidate power in the area surrounding Jericho, it's possible that for quite a number of residents the shock was already beginning to wear off - hence making them less susceptible to what is being forced upon them. What comes of any resistance remains to be seen. If the series is canceled, as I'm guessing will probably happen, expect a happy-ish ending in which the ASA's neoliberal dictatorship is stopped before it is too late, and the perps of the original bombings are exposed.

Summary

This is merely a brief attempt to put some tentative thoughts about the series out there, placing the plot in the context of Klein's new book. The notion that a government would contract some private firm to "come up with a catastrophic ... disaster plan" and then use that info to victimize those most affected by said disaster is nothing new: that's what happened to NOLA. Instead of the fictional Jennings and Rall, the real private contractor was something called Innovative Emergency Management (see Klein, p. 409). NOLA also offers us an insight into the effort to privatize all services previously handled by government employees. Remember public schools? They barely exist in NOLA these days; education has been privatized. That's merely the tip of the iceberg, but you get the picture. The potential of some form of "false flag operation" to induce a shock to the system is also pretty familiar - think Reichstag Fire on a grander scale. In recent pop culture, a "false flag" scenario is employed in the film V For Vendetta. The notion that a government and its corporate cronies could attack its own people for profit and power is certainly in the air these days.

So it goes.

My hope is that at least a few of y'all reading this will see something worthwhile in the series, which I consider a reasonably decent dystopian television drama that deserves more attention than it has received. Thankfully, CBS was willing to at least see the show through to some form of closure, and in the process may well have left us with a pop culture artifact worth continued study. Sometimes our mass media actually does something right.

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