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Digital Subscriptions > Boston Review > Evil Empire (Fall 2018) > The Sources of U.S. Conduct

The Sources of U.S. Conduct

Stuart Schrader

IMAGINE AN EMPIRE with a massive security sector, one barely accountable to the democratic will. This coercive system, though appearing self-perpetuating, represents an elite echelon’s efforts to protect and consolidate power. It employs so many people that its maintenance and funding is necessary, not because of the dictates of national security, but simply to keep all its workers from becoming “superfluous.” With a repressive apparatus notorious for its abuses, this security sector fosters the very domestic opposition it is designed to combat.

This outline, to some readers, may sound similar to the military-industrial complex—and its cognate prison-industrial complex—in the United States today. But this description actually comes from George Kennan’s foundational article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” which appeared in Foreign Affairs, under the byline X, in 1947. Kennan, perhaps more than anyone else, shaped the rhetoric of the Cold War in a way that made it seem preordained, inevitable. He is most often remembered for calling out the supposedly innate qualities of Russian culture—spiritual deprivation, cynicism, and conformity—upon whichcommunist ideology had been grafted. This combination, he argued, was destined to conflict with the innate qualities of Americanism—its freedom of worship, its emphasis on individuality, and its support of business. But the dominance of the security sector was another persistent motif in Kennan’s work; he dedicated five paragraphs of “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” to the “organs of suppression.” Secret police lurked everywhere, the narrative went, and prisons were the Soviet Union’s primary feature. By 1953, under Joseph Stalin, 2.6 million people were locked up in the gulag and over 3 million more were forcibly resettled—a total of around 3 percent of the population kept under state control. Kennan’s point, like those of other foundational Cold War tracts, was clear: unlike the United States, the Soviet Union was brutally repressive.

The idea that fundamental differences in approaches to incarceration drove the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union strikes an odd chord from the vantage of 2018. Today 2.3 million people are locked up in the United States, and an additional 4.5 million are on parole or probation, for a total of around 2 percent of the population under state control. But while much has been written about how legal changes and racial politics led to the carceral state, it is also helpful to see how Cold War confrontation further contributed to the United States’ own gulag.

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Paperback, 128 pages “All history,” writes Maximillian Alvarez in his contribution to this issue, “is the history of empire—a bid for control of that greatest expanse of territory, the past.” Evil Empire confronts these histories head-on, exploring the motivations, consequences, and surprising resiliency of empire and its narratives. Contributors grapple with the economic, technological, racial, and rhetorical elements of U.S. power and show how the effects are far-reaching and, in many ways, self-defeating. Drawing on a range of disciplines—from political science to science fiction—our authors approach the theme with imagination and urgency, animated by the desire to strengthen the fight for a better future. Featuring Nikhil Pal Singh, Arundhati Roy interviewed by Avni Sejpal, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Yuri Herrera translated by Lisa Dillman, Pankaj Mishra interviewed by Wajahat Ali, Frank Pasquale, Adom Getachew, Maximillian Alvarez, Jeanne Morefield, Michael Kimmage, Stuart Schrader, Marisol LeBrón, and Mark Bould.