Reflections on the progressive path forward.
The 2018 mid-term election was an astounding repudiation of Donald Trump, and an affirmation of a progressive alternative for the United States. A Democratic Party that has clearly moved to the Left on issues across the board – no doubt stimulated by the efforts of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, in particular – achieved historic gains that were only limited by the extreme gerrymandering that the Republicans have instituted following their successes in 2010. And these clearly remain serious structural impediments to further progressive politics, to a consideration of which I will turn shortly.
But we can be particularly excited by the racial, cultural, and gender diversity of the “class of 18.” And this achievement itself was built upon the most significant fact of all, namely the unprecedented politicization and mobilization of vast sectors of the electorate, across the country, a mobilization without precedent in modern American history. So many from all walks of life have come to realize that basic aspects of our culture and institutions – including much that we had always simply taken for granted as the gift of “American exceptionalism” – because “God had shed His grace” on us – were not guaranteed, and were directly threatened by the Trump Administration and its transformation of the Republican Party into a willing vehicle of a burgeoning American neo-Fascism.
In the truly national scope and sustained action of this popular mobilization lies the basis of the exciting electoral success. And in the sustaining and expanding of this unprecedented national mobilization lies the hope and possibility of effectively advancing a progressive agenda that can reclaim American politics through the national elections of 2020, the consequent state-by-state redistricting, and thus for years thereafter.
Therein resides our legitimate excitement, our organizational challenge, and our potential strategic trap. And it is to that potential “trap” that I want to address the better part of these remarks. For we are engaged in a long-term struggle with the forces of reaction, which, unfortunately, are all too strong across America – as attested to by Trump’s continued support at around 40%. We must build and expand the national constituency for progressive politics. And we must not alienate significant dimensions of that national mobilization by overplaying our hand. We must avoid getting carried away by some of the most remarkable progressive successes, mostly in the liberal bastions of many locations – but not all – in the Northeast, mid-West and West Coast, for example, thus playing into the hands of reaction.
Let me explicate this challenge by drawing on a few excellent points developed by Michael Tomasky in the current issue of the New York Review of Books to which we need to pay careful attention. He first correctly draws the following two key takeaways from the recent election: 1) the necessity for the Democrats to increasingly mobilize their base to counter the Trumpian mobilization; and 2) the need to address the increasingly dramatic split between, on the one hand, the expanding urban and suburban base of the Democratic electorate and, on the other hand, its drastically shrinking support in small town and rural Americas, the base of the Trumpian Republican Party.
Here, Tomasky observes that “there is no clearer sign of the changing shape of the Democratic coalition than the fact that going into the 2018 midterm elections, six of the 20 richest congressional districts were represented by Republicans but that when the new Congress is sworn in, all 20 will be represented by Democrats…. But by 2020, the Democrats will have to find ways to improve their performance in exurban and rural areas. This is not only for the sake of defeating Trump, but also to have any chance of recapturing the Senate.”
Here, “a look at the Beto O’Rourke’s defeat in Texas, compared with Sherrod Brown’s victory in increasingly Republican Ohio, … is instructive.” While O’Rourke only lost by “around 220,000 votes out of 8.33 million cast, (he) carried just thirty-two of the state’s 254 counties, … (he) got walloped (in most of the rest). For example, … in six of the seven counties that surround (the city of Fort Worth), Cruz won 54, 68, 76, 80, 81, and 82 percent. And he won 70 or 80 percent of the vote in dozens of the smaller rural counties.” In contrast, Brown was victorious by being able to keep his deficit in similar rural and small town Ohio to around 60%.
Tomasky then observes that “the electoral consequences should be clear. Consider the Senate map of 2020. Thirty-four senators will face reelection (except for those who choose to retire). Of those, twenty-three will be Republicans, and just eleven Democrats. That sounds favorable to Democrats, but if you look closer, about fourteen of the Republicans represent deep-red states where they should cruise to reelection. The other seven will not be easy to flip. The fattest target is probably Maine incumbent Susan Collins. Maine just elected a Democratic governor, who is also the state’s first female governor. But beating an incumbent senator is always hard (though some believe Collins may retire). The other states where Democrats may have a shot include Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina, Iowa, Georgia, and Texas. Donald Trump carried five of those six. All have major cities, but all are states where it’s hard to win by carrying only the most populous counties and doing poorly in the rural ones.”
“As for the presidency,” Tomasky continues, “there are a number of states—the Great Lakes states, North Carolina, Florida, and even Arizona and Georgia—where the pro-Trump vote in the rural counties will be so amped up that the Democrat, while winning the big counties, will have a tough time overcoming it.“
While not exploring the causes of this electoral divide, which bears on the political and economic failures of both parties over the last 50 years, to which I will turn shortly, Tomasky offers the following “stunning statistics. The United States has experienced three recessions since 1990(:) … after the early 1990s recession, 71 percent of the new business growth occurred in counties with fewer than 500,000 people (and within that, 32 percent in counties with fewer than 100,000 people). After the 2002–2003 recession, that 71 percent shrank to 51 percent. And after the Great Recession of 2007–2009, the number was 19 percent—and in counties under 100,000 growth was literally zero.That is a crisis. It’s at the root of the opioid epidemic, and it’s why so many young people leave these towns.” And those most recent numbers happened under the neo-Liberal Obama Administration. This highlights one of the central reasons these regions are so desperate for change, and so angry at all political establishments, but especially those they see as aligned with urban cosmopolitan interests and values, which they primarily identify with the Democrats.
There is so much more than can and should be said about the causes and scope of this problem which I cannot address here, except to note that this economic situation and political divide is a direct result of the process of Neo-Liberal Globalization that has dominated the Western World since at least the arrival of Thatcher and Reagan. And it has had similar results across the “advanced West,” not to speak of its more global consequences. For example, it is the essential background for the almost unprecedented nation-wide mobilization of the French people against the Neo-Liberal policies of the Macron Administration, that has effectively brought that government to its knees.
But I only want to underline here the fact that a progressive Democratic program, if it is to be successful, must begin to address this economic and cultural divide. And to do that, it must break from the Neo-LIberal orthodoxy of its Clinton-Obama establishment, that has left behind so much of America. Here, Tomasky highlights “the Democrats’ two big electoral tasks as they head into 2020: to invest in maximizing turnout among their base voters in cities and diverse suburbs, and to take steps to ensure that they can become more competitive in the exurbs and the countryside. These goals may seem as though they contradict each other, but they need not; both constituencies would be open to an agenda emphasizing public investments that help middle- and working-class people. There will be some tension on cultural issues, and Democrats shouldn’t go overboard in pandering for rural votes. After all, they’re not trying win those areas; just to perform about 10 or 15 points better—at Sherrod Brown’s levels rather than Beto O’Rourke’s.”
But here’s where the “trap” of potential Left-wing overreach emerges. The danger that the Left will get carried away with its political enthusiasm and ideological rhetoric. I think of talk I have heard that speaks of an ascendant Left that should direct the Democrat’s national program. Or a recent program of MSNBC’s “The Last Word,” for example, on which Lawrence O’Donnell assembled a panel of “experts” to propound that Trump’s most recent series of tweets makes it incumbent on the New Democratic House of Representatives that they immediately begin impeachment proceedings. However desirable both of these goals may well be, they overreach the currently politically possible, and threaten to energize a popular backlash.
Just to note two salient points from the 2018 election in support of this caution. First, a significant majority of the Democrats’ 40 seat shift in the House of Representatives was accomplished with quite narrow electoral margins. Several were not even decided for several weeks. Second, as Michael Tomasky points out – a fact too many Left-wing advocates have ignored – “left-wing candidates did not do well overall in this election. The three major left-wing groups that endorsed candidates this year flipped no House seats from red to blue, while the more centrist New Dem PAC flipped twenty-eight seats.” To which he adds, challengingly, “what the Democrats will need in 2020, far more than a candidate of the left, or for that matter of the avowed center, is one who can withstand what will undoubtedly be the dirtiest and most dishonest campaign in the country’s modern history and provide the clearest moral contrast to the incumbent.”
He then concludes, quite on the mark as far as I am concerned, “the party now has the power to hold Trump and his administration accountable. They shouldn’t overreach and carry on about impeachment. Removing Trump from office would require the assent of about twenty Republican senators and is therefore basically impossible. They should just expose the corruption through holding aggressive oversight hearings and trust the American people to reach the right conclusion. Trump’s partisans are fierce, but the election showed that they are, however narrowly, outnumbered.”
So where is the danger of overreach? Clearly any attempt to immediately move for impeachment, for which much of the Country is clearly not ready, and on which platform few successful Democrats ran, would not be well received. Before any such effort might become practicable, there will need to be an ongoing series of quite legitimate public investigations by the New Democratic House, plus continual revelations by the Justice Department. That might “soften up” the terrain for an impeachment inquiry. But that’s at best down the road.
Even more challenging and potentially destructive in the short run, is the emerging progressive strategy to advance a Green New Deal. Clearly, such a program can embody an exciting vision of a potentially transformative progressive program to address both the challenge of global warming and offer an effective alternative to that Neo-LIberal abandonment of large sections of American society. It is essential, of course, that we have such a program – and develop a consequent movement – to promote the comprehensive structural changes in the US economy that addresses both the profound dangers to civilization posed by Global Warming, and the vast destabilizing income inequalities and regional disparities that have been caused by Neo-Liberal Globalization. Let me be quite clear about that.
At the same time, however, the proposed Green New Deal, embodies a practical trap of political overreach for the Democratic Party, driven by an excited progressive movement that is well ahead of where much of the Country is at present. The danger is that the excitement of electoral successes and the real need of systemic change, will drive ideologically committed progressives to mistake a necessary directional goal for a non-révisable and achievable short-term political program. That is to make a two-fold basic strategic error, one methodological, and one political.
Methodologically, it is to mistake a projected and necessary end-in-view with the short term programs that can begin to move us in the desired direction. An end-in-view should be seen, not as a final goal that we are to insist be imposed upon our politics here and now. Rather, it should be seen as a “means to present action.” It is a necessary marker of a direction for our politics to take. It sets forth a needed theoretical frame and political direction to guide our short-term policies and programs. As we proceed with their practical implementation, reality itself is changed, and that will inevitably require us to continually revise and update our guiding vision and its on-going practical enactment.
Politically, the way that that general methodological point bears upon the present situation, is that presentation of, and the consequent public campaign on behalf of, a Green New Deal will not only direct present programs, but can begin to raise public consciousness and to move the public debate. Thus it can increasingly gain the support of increasingly wider sections of the public, thus making its radical programs more palatable to the general public. This is a campaign of several years duration, similar to that that was begun about a decade ago on behalf of Medicare For All, which campaign has now achieved far more general popular acceptance.
These remarks may not sit well with some of my progressive allies, who I feel may have fallen in love with their own rhetoric and have confused their quite legitimate hopes for a decent America with the practical limitations placed on current poltical possibilities by the vast, complex, and diverse makeup of the American electorate, and the structural impediments to implementing systemic progressive economic, racial, and social transformation. It is, of course, quite essential to hold to that vision, and to try to effectively advance it as much as possible. But we have learnt in these last few years, if we needed that education, that any short term gains can easily be completely undone if we cannot secure a lasting base, both ideological and structural, for progressive politics through 2020 and beyond. And we must acknowledge the current limitations of national support for the complete progressive agenda to which even the remarkable nation-wide popular mobilization and electoral success are convincing testimony.
“In our increasingly polarized environment, success is not had by moving to the vanishing center and trying to appease the “moderates,” but by energizing and mobilizing … our base to turn out to vote. And that requires attractive candidates that can present programs that speak to the concerns of their constituents. But … this is a large and diverse nation, and that what will speak to their constituents’ issues and concerns, and in a language that communicates, will be significantly different in different parts of the country.” Back Bay Boston is not Southern California. Queens and The Bronx are not Colorado, Arizona, or even Western Pennsylvania.
We have a remarkable opportunity to turn back Trumpian incipient neo-Fascism, and to begin building a progressive future. This is actually a life and death struggle to preserve even a modified democratic future for this country. It is a vital struggle. We must be careful not to overplay our hand and screw it up.
Public Talks for 2018
“American Philosophy: it’s originality, and practicality, from progressive education to science, law, and democracy.” Gold Coast Library, 1/17 7pm.
There is much that is unique about the development of the United States of America, as well as much that is not. Original visions have struggled with quite traditional values and attitudes throughout our history. American Philosophy, in giving voice to the possibilities of America has made original contributions to Western Philosophy, developing our ideals while critically analyzing our limitations. Touching on a wide range of areas, from education and politics, to religion and science, we will provide a perspective on this development, and suggest some of the fault lines that mark contemporary experience.
“Making Sense of Recent Elections: what can we learn from the unexpected election results in America, Britain, and elsewhere?” South Huntington Library, 1/24 7pm
First the British vote to withdraw from the European Union, then the American election of Donald Trump startled experts and deranged established political expectations and institutions. Similar forces have seemed to be at work at other European countries, though with modified results. What are we to make of these election results, and what do they portend for the future of Western liberal democracies? These are the kind of issues we will seek to address.
“Trump’s America: what is its vision, program, and the nature of its support.” Gold Coast Library, 2/7 at 7pm
We will explore the significance for America of the election of Donald Trump. What were the conditions that laid the groundwork for his election? Who voted for him, and why? And what are the possible consequences?
“Fantasyland: Reflections on America’s Character and Culture”
3 lectures at Hutton House, LIU Wednesdays 2/14-28 from 1-3pm.
In these Reflections on America’s Character and Culture, we will explore:
Who we are. The cultures, ethnicities, and belief systems that have built the U.S. How we developed. Some of the major challenges we have faced, and how we addressed them. Our growth, expansion, and Manifest Destiny. The emergence of the “cultural Cold War” that has come to dominate our politics. The Trump phenomena. And the divergent paths now before us.
“Manifest Destiny and the Meaning of America: thinking about our history and its contemporary relevance.” Syosset Library, 3/1 at 2pm.
Americans have always believed that we are an exceptional people. From the Puritans landing at Plymouth Rock, seeking to build “a city upon a hill” that all the world would view as an example of how all should live, through the 19th Century notion that we had a “manifest destiny” to occupy the entire North American continent “from sea to shining sea.” As a nation, we continue to believe “that God shed his Grace on thee.” We joined WW1 “to save the world for democracy,” and continue to believe that we are the beacons of “The Free World,” with an obligation and responsibility to preserve the values that have made us great. What is that belief system? What are its origins? How has it operated to guide our history? And what are its implications for us as a nation today? These are the issues I hope to address.
“The American Dream: what it means and what are its prospects.” Elmont Memorial Library, 4/6 12:30 pm
Since its inception, one of the central meanings of America has been the opportunity to make something of one’s life. America offered the promise, and quite often the reality, of a continually improving standard of living for oneself and for one’s children. This sense of individual possibility, rooted in personal freedom and basic human rights became a beacon for people across the world. That became the wider significance of the claim that we were « as a city upon a hill » for all the world to see what life could become. In recent times, however, this vision has become increasingly uncertain. What has been happening to the American Dream? Why is that? And what can we do about it?
As events are unfolding, both domestically and internationally, and new revelations and cover ups surround questions of past and present connections between Trump allies and important Russian officials, I am increasingly coming to the belief that we are in the midst of a major neo-Fascist alliance to reshape the Western world.
Trump’s domestic agenda is one that prioritizes corporate interests, while spouting populist rhetoric, demonizes marginalizable groups in the name of America First — the proto-Nazi slogan on Charles Lindberg and friends in the 30s — shows no respect for the law, courts, or traditional democratic norms, and is committed to the militarization of the police and the suppression of dissent. Meanwhile, he praises Putin and other strongmen, hires past promoters of dictators, and undermines American democratic allies and alliances. And this is not to say anything about his possible direct relation with Russian interference in our, and in our allies, elections. At the same time, it is clear that Putin has actively supported Far Right candidates throughout Europe, including the French anti-Semitic National Front and the anti-Muslim party in the Netherlands — all of whom seek to undermine the European Union.
That is why I believe that we can not act as if we are dealing with politics as usual in the U.S. The Trump Administration is not simply a more radical version of traditional Right Wing politics. It is an existential threat to the very survival of representative government in the U.S., and in a significant sense, to the very survival of relatively decent societies in Europe.
And those of us, whether on the Left, Center, or even Right, who believe in the rule of law, and the at least relative respect for human wellbeing, and the rights and dignity of all people, must join together to do everything we can to delegitimize and incapacitate the Trump Administration from carrying out its neo-Fascist agenda at home and abroad.
A necessary practical step in carrying out this program requires undermining the nearly lockstep support that Trump has so far received from the Republican Party. And the most effective practical strategy for accomplishing that is a full court press on the need for a complete, impartial investigation into the Trump campaign’s connection with Russian interference in our election, and pushing that investigation into exploring any and all continuing coordination between the Trump Administration and the Russian Government.
And that is why the effort of many often well-meaning Leftists — who may seek peace, want detente with Russia, and may fear that these concerns with Russian hacking are solely promoted by Cold Warriors in order to recreate a Cold War, or who may still even have a sympathetic identification with Russia as the continuation of the Soviet Communist ideological commitment to promoting the classless society — their efforts to cast doubt on, or even undermine, investigation into Russian interference in our election is, I fear, no doubt unintentionally and quite unfortunately, playing into the hands of this emerging domestic and international Fascist Axis. We must not normalize the Trump Administration. We must do everything to keep the Russian connection front and center in our demand for a complete impartial investigation, as we confront the Trump Administration on every level, defending threatened groups and basic human rights and services, while promoting programs of social justice, human decency, and ecologically sound and equitable economic development.
On Being Mesmerized by Donald Trump
I Fear Progressives Are Being Mesmerized by Donald Trump. We have been outraged by his positions, and frightened by the support he has received. And that is understandable. So we have focused our attention and mobilized our supporters in opposition, as if his success would be the worst thing that could happen to this country. And, in our determination and narrow-minded focus, I fear we have lost sight of the bigger picture, and the far more serious threats that are being hidden behind the Trump phenomenon.
No question that Trump’s policies, such as one can make them out, are real threats to the humanistic and progressive values we cherish. And there can be little remaining doubt about his significant character failures. But the fact remains, that his positions, bad as they are, are not nearly as bad as those of all of the other establishment Republicans who rightly feel threatened by his ascendency.
The so-called Conservative establishment is a systematic and organized attack on LBJ’s Great Society and FDR’s New Deal, and even on much of the best from the Progressive Era. And our exclusive attention to Trump has led many to feel that even Ted Cruz — who is the closest thing we have in current mainstream politics to a Fascist — is preferable to Trump. That, for example, was precisely the position that Bill Maher expounded this past Friday. And even the “progressive” media seems to be falling for the same line. Meanwhile, much of the mainstream of the Radical Right, such as The National Review, know that Trump is no “card-carrying” member of that mainstream. (He doesn’t even call for the destruction of Social Security.)
And while we, and the mainstream media, are transfixed by the Trump phenomena, and many are even tending to speak nicely of the “moderate” John Kasich, we are failing to pay attention to the real dangers lurking off stage, such as the Republican and corporate donor class preparing to bring a white knight, such as Paul Ryan, to the rescue. While Trump would be a real disaster for the country, he is clearly the most defeatable Republican candidate. But Paul Ryan, whose policies are straight out of a corporate America’s wet dream, has been lionized by the mainstream media as a “new face,” as a thoughtful policy wonk who offers real solutions to America. And he is young, dynamic, attractive, and supposedly not even trying for the job. The age contrast he would present to either Democratic nominee would play well in American media.
In short, he, and most any other Republican “savior” who is likely to emerge from a successful stop Trump movement, would be both far more threatening to humanistic and progressive values, and far more likely to be elected than would Donald Trump. So let’s stop being mesmerized by, and singularly focused on, Donald Trump, and keep our eye on the ball. The Republican Party has been taken over by The Radical Right — there is nothing “conservative” about them. They are committed to eviscerating the social safety net, environmental safeguards, labor rights, and so much more. And in important and complex ways, Donald Trump threatens even that establishment. His candidacy could vastly weaken the Republican brand, and certainly help the Democrats regain national ascendancy, including in the Supreme Court. While the Bernie phenomena, regardless of its own electoral success, can provide the groundwork for moving the entire country leftward. But this will not happen if the Republicans can derail Donald Trump, and replace him with a “white knight.”
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”.