Reflections on the Current State of US politics
As the 2016 election process begins in earnest, I thought it would be helpful to review the following selection from my chapter on “The American Enterprise”, from my most recent book, Critique of Western Philosophy and Social Theory. While the book was published a few years ago, the basics of the chapter were written in the early 70s. I think they were fairly prescient — and I believe their analysis sheds light on the current state of US culture and politics.
…from the middle of the nineteenth century onward the United States became “the most thoroughly Reformed Protestant Christian Commonwealth the world has ever known” To be an authentic Christian in America thus comes to require each individual to personally undergo a “re-birth” experience–to be “born again”–which, as time tends to institutionalize religious experience, seems to demand that every few generations need to carry out their own “revivalist” movement in order to challenge that inevitable sedimentation of religious practice through a “great awakening.”
Is it any wonder that such physical and psychic exuberance and material success were often experienced as practical signs of God’s favor, and taken as evidence that the successful had been so blessed by God that they could feel confident they were among God’s elect–that, in fact, God had shed his grace on them, literally crowning “thy (collective) good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.”? Nor is it any wonder that this entire process was understood and found articulation through the language of the religious tradition out of which it emerged–thus seeing material accomplishments in trade, commerce, and conquest as divinely sanctioned.
The “divine election” that resulted from each individual’s success in working out their personal salvation through dedication and hard work–the freedom of enterprise to choose one’s life style and to bear the burden or reap the success of one’s individual effort–increasingly becomes the operative meaning of freedom and democracy, with Harry Truman even replacing Roosevelt’s “freedom from want and fear” with “freedom of enterprise.”
Thus private enterprise marginalizes Christianity’s communal spirit as well as classical Republicanism’s concern for the polity and civic well-being.
Tensions were ever-present, however, between the collective nature of the initial undertakings, without which none of them could have succeeded, and both the unlimited and uncontrollable opportunities for individual initiative that were offered by a practically unlimited frontier and the overwhelming pre-occupation of Reformed Christianity with the individual’s sense of guilt for his/her own sinfulness and the deep need of each person to work out their own salvation. Thus Habits of the Heart nicely contrasts the vision of collective and communal salvation of Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” with the more individual and down-to-earth turn that Benjamin Franklin gives to the moral program of Cotton Mather, what was then called the “Protestant ethic”, re-baptized as the American “work ethic”, however much now more honored “in the breach than in the observance thereof.”
Although, by the mid-20th Century, Americans had become far less enamored of the requirement of actually working to earn their wealth and power, they still felt the need to defend its possession in the name of its having been earned. Americans both justify those who “have it made” as having earned their success by personal hard work and ability–developing those “god-given” talents to their fullest so as to excel in the competitive struggle that is the condition of human life–and hold those who have failed to realize the opportunities provided by the free market and democratic society as individually responsible and implicitly morally culpable. Such individuals can only be “saved” from the condemnation their failure justly sanctions by both assuming full personal responsibility for it, and turning themselves over to the power of spiritual rebirth that will make them new individuals. It is but one more irony of American Protestant individualism, that not only is it given birth, sustained, and even nurtured by the collective culture, but the spiritual re-birth possible for the failed and fallen can only come to be within the context of a sustaining community, whose role is to both encourage self-abasement and to nurture individual responsibility. But whoever said that cultures are thematically linear and dramatically un-ambivalent and coherent.
It is here that we must situate the emergence in the last quarter of the twentieth century of the “New Right”, the “Moral Majority”, and the election first of Ronald Reagan, then of George W. Bush. The “politics of nostalgia” bemoans the fading of “The American Dream.” The psychic loss roots in the disintegration of local communities and traditional moral values, themselves the casualties of the unbounded faith of Americans in individual initiative and the “free market.” Meanwhile, Corporate America, legitimized by a faith that it itself has in fact long given up, uses these movements as cover for its efforts to recapture the economic and political initiative at home and abroad. This revitalized imperial mission in the service of private accumulation calls for military expansion to protect the free world from the “threat” of the “demonized”, first the Russians, then the Chinese and the Arabs. Who knows what others will have to be (con-)scripted to play the role of the “Evil One”.
But the contradictions are pervasive. As the unconstrained free market search for profitability undermines settled community life and traditional values, the latter gives expression to its attendant and increasing anxiety with more fervent support for expansion of the imperatives of corporate profitability. As the public sphere increasingly deteriorates under the push of unbridled corporate expansion, individuals retreat ever more into the privatized worlds of home and church, themselves ever more subject to the vagaries of a corporate power less and less understood and controllable. Meanwhile, the home becomes a bastion of security under continual threat from a public world, dominated by the corporations, but increasingly experienced as the locus of potential criminal assaults from them–themselves but the most pervasively exploited segments of a deteriorating social order in which it is every man or woman for him or herself. Thus the home (or church) as refuge is felt to be under constant attack. Similarly with the psyche, in this marketing world of idealized individualism, where every one is encouraged to compete for success at the expense of others, and to market him or herself in order to present the most attractive package. Americans can no longer know whether others are sincere, or simply more clever in the way they present themselves in order to seem so. Not only is the home and family disintegrating under the impact of competitive individualism, but personal relations cut loose from the ties of sustaining communities, and increasingly from settled, not to say extended, families, tend to be reduced to short term contracts in which one must withhold one’s deeper feelings for fear of their being used against one. In any case, since moving is so pervasive, and human relations of such short duration, to get too involved risks a personal suffering to which only a masochist would look forward.
The home as refuge roots a “new feudalism” which is the social counterpart of the emerging “new colonialism” of the world of transnational corporations. In the contradiction between private accumulation and public decay–each feeding the other in a descending spiral–the “American Dream” withers, giving place to a resentful, revenge-prone, frightened psyche, seeking redress from them for what they are doing to it. At home, they are blacks, gays, women’s libbers, radicals, druggies, and aliens of various sorts. Abroad, they are bandits, Commies, Russians, drug lords, Arabs, Ayatollahs, terrorists, and those who “front” for them. All of this fits well with the economic imperatives of transnational corporations for a world free of political impediments to their search for profit, and free of those who would resist the life style which bureaucratic organization imposes upon its workers. (Of course, there are imperatives of behavior different for the ruling elite than for the rest of us, but that is another story.) At the center of this dynamic resides the twin axes of privatization and growth, as the ideological and psychic poles of attraction which seem to draw forth the energies of all Americans.
Section 4: Privatization and Growth: the universal elixir
America’s psychic needs have been coordinated with its cultural and institutional dynamic. Privatization and growth have thus been dialectically linked. Privatization has nourished and been nourished by the continual growth of the American Enterprise. The “American Dream” is the idealized expression of an unfettered individualism riding the crest of the wave of enterprise as it flowed across the continent, then washed onto alien shores, drowning under military arms and libratory rhetoric communities, nations, and peoples with the temerity to resist. Growth has made privatization possible, both by expanding the space for action and by providing the reduplicative commodities that might be individually possessed and privately used. Privatization, in turn, has fed growth through the creation of multiple needs, thus expanding the market for a practically unending series of “necessities”. What better marketing possibilities than those provided by the proliferation of suburban residences whose ideal was to be the self-sufficient refuge from the storms of public life. From dish-and clothes-washer and dryer, to swimming pool, tennis court, personal stereo, TV, games, toys, books, and, hopefully, cars — to each his own. In fact, middle class suburban Americans tend to apologize if they are not able to provide each of their children with their own room. Of course, such privatization helps avoid the need to share, to learn to accommodate one’s personal aspirations to the desires of others, and to develop the skills to constructively respond to conflictual interpersonal situations in an equalitarian fashion. The motto for group interaction has become “Lead, follow, or get out of the way,” as one poster so aptly puts it. The nuclear family has been the paired down social infrastructure whose light baggage was well suited to follow the dictates of the market in the search for advancement, while promising to each member both emotional support and personal space. Whether it can deliver on either is another question; as are the related concerns of the extent to which a family needs wider community roots in which to flourish, and whether psychic health is sustainable in the long run when grounded in such a narrow range of personal relations, themselves without historical depth.
Behind the nuclear family, however, and the twin dynamics of privatization and growth that have vitalized it, resides the institutionalized requirements of capitalism, both for expanding markets and a fluid labor force. As transnational corporations have consolidated their competitive position–horizontally, through the conquest of producers of similar commodities; vertically, through control of the process of production from raw material to marketed final product; and through diversification of product line and range of profitable endeavors–they have become quasi-autonomous empires, operating across political boundaries. Owing allegiance to no community, nor, increasingly, to any country, they are less and less geographically locatable. They exist rather as a network of operations. Localities are reduced to sources of exploitable raw materials, sources of cheap or skilled labor, markets, or tax havens. Transnationals shift resources around to take maximum advantage not only of climate, geography, and natural and human resources, but also to maximize political, economic, and military leverage. The world-wide scale of their operations facilitates the subtle, and often not so subtle, blackmail which seeks to insure a “favorable climate for business investment.”
Neighborhoods, localities, and even nations, thus become but manipulable instrumentalities within the world-wide empires of transnational giants. The corporate network is replacing the nation state, instituting a New Colonialism, or, perhaps better, the Re-colonization of the New World and Retro-colonization of the Old World. Of course, these new colonizers are no longer small expeditionary forces carrying the national flag, but transnational conglomerates controlling market forces and international movements of capital, backed up by the “legitimate” military might of the “home” country–as well as its not so legitimate secret police with their subterranean alliances with the secret services of the “client” states. Increasingly, their power is being given transnational legal expression through purported “free trade” agreements that guarantee the free movement of capital at the expense of local or national autonomy and democratic self-government.
This New Colonialism can thus destroy jobs and relocate factories, or blackmail communities into accepting lower wages, granting extraordinary tax benefits, weakening environmental and health and safety regulations, and allowing the deterioration of social and human services; in short, the community is held hostage to the power of international capital. A vicious spiral is set in motion, as the lack of effective local control furthers the process of neighborhood deterioration, which itself increases the individual’s urge to withdraw from public involvement in community affairs. The retreat to the privacy of the home offers itself as a refuge from the impotence, disillusion, and social disintegration, of which rising crime rates and growing juvenile delinquency and drug use become the symbolic expressions. (With wages being driven down by corporate globalization, and the social wage being progressively undermined through competitive disadvantage, and more and more families needing to have more than one wage earner, and for each of them to work ever longer hours, the process of withdrawal from civic engagement is still further exacerbated.) Of course, the less one is attached to one’s community, the easier it is to pack up and move on. Such mobility, while quite suitable to corporations, only serves to reinforce the same descending spiral. Thus the world-wide market under corporate domination furthers the disintegration of communal bonds and collective morality.
As for the privatizing retreat of individuals into the refuge of their home–fleeing from an alien world felt to be out of their control–it is motivated by a growing resentment at the failure of personal expectations. The resultant anger tends to be directed not at the corporate forces responsible, but rather toward the major victims of exploitation. Those reduced to ghettos, poverty, and the violent struggle to keep their head above water–whether through disorganized crime or organized rebellion–tend to become targeted as the primary threats to the “American way of life”. Thus the legitimately engendered experience of vulnerability is easily and effectively translated at a conscious level into a pre-occupation with crime. Merging with the reality of a disintegrating social world that tends to increase actual criminal activity, the public portrayal of domestic dangers conveniently focuses upon “alien” minorities, themselves the major victims of transnational capitalism, effectively directing public attention away from systemic corporate evils toward individual criminality where such criminals tend to be young, male, poor, and black or hispanic. Middle America is led to believe that the major internal threat to its health and well-being comes from “the black,” “the poor,” or the immigrant, those “below them” in the socio-economic hierarchy, rather than from those above them, the wealthy and the corporate establishment. And why should they question those at the top? They are the ones who have made it, and deserve what they get. If we, on the other hand, have not made it as well, and if those below have not made it at all, well it’s simply our or their fault. Perhaps we will make it yet. Such, at least, is the “conventional wisdom”.
Thus TV programs often treat one-on-one crime by such individuals as the major dramatic problem in life. Local TV news is generally little more than sensationalized reporting of crime and disasters, interspersed with sports, weather, and commercials. Discussions of work-place hazards, contamination of air and water, deterioration of the “public sector” (except as an expression of “bureaucratic” indifference or union corruption), are covered at best in passing, with reference to individual failures without consideration of institutional factors–except, that is, for the occasional swipes at government bureaucrats, corrupt union officials, or greedy and lazy workers. While “bureaucrats” are fair game, “executives”–certainly as a class–seem to be almost beyond reproach, regardless of the few “rotten apples in the bunch.”
No wonder that the retreat into the private home is increasingly offered as an idyllic refuge from a “dog eat dog” public world. If the American’s home is his or her castle, improved electronic security systems are rapidly becoming the moats by which they seek to protect themselves from unwanted intruders, not to speak of the increasing development of gated communities. This process of re-feudalization constitutes a desperate attempt to avoid the inevitable effects of a world market, dominated by the profit requirements of transnational corporate empires, whose subtly disintegrative impact is completely undetectable by even the most sophisticated home burglary alarm systems.
A further and quite pervasive effect of these disintegrative forces that is almost invariably missed is their impact on youth. Members of the last two generations of the Twentieth Century were probably the first in American history that could not reasonably expect to achieve a better material standard of living than their parents. Sensing, though not yet clearly grasping, the closing door of material advancement, they had at the same time to confront a culture that no longer offered a believable sense of historical mission. Americans will not “make the world safe for democracy”, however much its leaders proclaim that as their mission. The innocence and hope that was the meaning of the journey into the New World has given way first to a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate cynicism and disillusion, then to a fear of terrorism and the alien other. Americans have turned inward in increasing preoccupation with narrow and short-range personal goals. This self-centeredness has been encouraged by corporate advertising that, driven insatiably to increase sales, has expanded needs–often through the generation of anxiety about personal inadequacy, as trivially as that with bad breath or the lack of white teeth–and then justified immediate satisfaction of them. The traditional Protestant work ethic has been an inevitable victim of advanced capitalism’s “consumer society”, as the ethic of “self-indulgence” replaces that of self-denial and constructive effort. (It has even been provided with an economic rationale in the need to continually expand consumer demand in order to sustain economic growth.) Youth are thus invited to partake in the “celebration of commodities” at a time when it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain a satisfying job.
Meanwhile, as the future becomes shortened and narrowed, the demands of discipline and hard work are less impressive. Then there is terrorism and the bomb, as both symbol and reality–not to speak of “global warming” and the depletion of the ozone layer. Lurking on the horizon of our future, placing everything in doubt, is the sense that collectively we may have no future. What can long-term commitments mean in the face of this patent and uncontrollable reality? What can call youth to serious and sustained effort in such a world? Joined to the loss of history consequent upon the disintegration of extended family and settled community life, renewed each day by the narrowed vision and condensed time frame of commercial media, contemporary youth must make sense of their life and its possibilities confronting a world whose future is temporally shortened and culturally narrowed almost to the point of irrelevance. Cut loose from ties that can bind, sustain, and vitalize, many, with practically unlimited choices before them, drift purposelessly before the abyss, prey to each succeeding fad, caught up in an unending series of heightened moments leading nowhere.
If this analysis correctly portrays the dynamic forces currently tearing apart the “American Dream”, an exploration of possible alternative responses is all the more urgently called for. The strategies of Corporate America are fairly clear. With “The American Enterprise” being so pervasively squeezed, corporate strategy vacillates between trying to placate, channel, or repress dissatisfaction on the home front, and efforts to buy out, intimidate, or destroy challenges to its world supremacy internationally. From the “benign” managed capitalism with some welfare emoluments of the “Eastern Establishment” to the militant, proto-fascistic urgings of the Far Right, Christian fundamentalism, and the Military-Industrial-Security apparatus, the logic of trans-national ascendancy and corporate profitability remains the same. It is, however, beyond the scope of this chapter to explore these conflicting strategies, their institutional foundations, and ideological expressions. Whatever these may be, one thing remains clear: business as usual is no longer possible, and the powers that be know it well. We need only recall the 1975 report of their Trilateral Commission to the effect that the world is suffering from “an excess of democracy”, not to speak of the “failure” of the Welfare State upon which the entire Reagan program was explicitly predicated.
On the other hand, this analysis suggests the need for an effective strategy to counter the growing imperial corporate offensive. It should be obvious that any such strategy requires both the development of an organized political opposition and the creation on an alternative world view that would make such an opposition credible. Such an opposition would have to be rooted in those social groups and institutions whose essential interests conflict with the imperatives of the transnational conglomerates. Further, any such attempts to effectively mobilize a political alternative must also come to terms with the psychic dynamics of American character, which is so deeply wedded to the myth of personal success through aggressive domination of the alien other–whether it be nature or other human beings–that it experiences material accumulation and social domination as essential psychic needs, (Not to mention the way in which this dynamic tends to be glossed in terms of America’s divine mission to bring freedom and democracy to the world.) If Americans are not “Number One” they tend to feel themselves to be failures. Without a concrete strategy to effect affect, to transform a concern with quantity into one for quality, a preoccupation with exclusive goods into a concern for inclusive goods, any such constructive strategy is bound to fail. And such a strategy must be rooted in a compelling narrative that makes sense of personal effort by placing it in a wider and ennobling worldview, which worldview must disabuse itself of any claims to a divine world mission or providential destiny for America.
The depth of the challenge now facing America should thus be clear. Torn between frontier and garden, between individual and community, the American psyche is easily whipped into action against mythological enemies at home and abroad. If we fail to combat the America of executive supremacy, national secrecy, capitalist audacity, and imperialist penetration–almost always in the name of promoting freedom and democracy–America will be unable to avoid the disaster of benign fascism toward which it has been more than creeping.
The revitalization of America thus requires both the breaking of the power of the large corporations and the remolding of the psyche of Americans. Unless the success orientation rooted in the competitive accumulation of material wealth and personal privilege is transformed into a more modest communal attitude, the growing hostilities now tearing at the fabric of America’s personal and institutional life will not be able to be controlled. Save, that is, for the imposition from above of an increasingly repressive techno-bureaucratic order by those established bureaucracies of power and wealth. Such an order will protect the hierarchy of privilege of the controlling establishment while maintaining the class-based social antagonisms that permit the redirection of middle Americans’ latent hostilities at the pressurized under-classes at home and the Evil Enemy overseas.
America’s choices are at least relatively clear. Either it develops a moderately decentralized social system that, in coming to terms with its natural and social environment, revitalizes public life, or it faces the growing institutionalization of a mass society rooted in hierarchic privilege and repressive social control, coming, no doubt, in the guise of “national security” and in order to protect “the American Way of Life”.