Friday 26 November 2010
by: Richard Lichtman, t r u t h o u t | Op-ed
I have long been an avid reader of the writings of William Rivers Pitt, whose strong moral voice and incisive intellect have never been more necessary than in this time of horrendous political and cultural corruption. And I have no doubt that his assessment of Bush and his reign of destruction will resonate strongly with many readers of his account. Everything Pitt notes seems to me to be true: Bush’s class-derived economic policy and its ensuing national chaos; the instigation of a completely contrived war that has already led to the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and the displacement of millions more; the Alfred E. Newmanesque vapidity that marked his original disavowal of national danger and the consequent politicization of fear as an instrument of social policy – the modern, centralized, secular version of the Puritan Jememiad; the overt dishonesty that thrived in the petri dish of contaminating theories of expediently constructed truths; a complete disavowal of the notion of constitutional democracy; the willful, racist abandonment of New Orleans‘ Black population during and after Katrina; the totalitarian inflation of the role of president – and so on into the dark night of disintegration and despair.
What then is there to write about when it has all been said? But something is missing from Mr. Pitt’s essay that is as significant as the consequence of the Bush administration‘s policy. It is the very fact that he became president, that he was voted into office in a purported “democracy,” that so many millions chose to support his candidacy. I do not deny that the election of 2000 was pilfered and that it involved the allied corruption of the Supreme Court, or that significant acts of manipulation occurred in 2004. Hitler also came to power with the aid of terror and overt violence, but it cannot be denied that a plurality of Germans supported him. The actual total of voters who supported Bush in his two elections may never be exactly known, and, in 2000, certainly did not constitute a plurality. The terrible fact remains that he received the enormous support he did not once, but, even more incredibly, twice, and in the context of the devastating war he waged without justification.
The question that has not been asked seriously enough is how this catastrophe could have occurred. After the condemnation of Bush has been certified and recorded, one would have expected an attempt at explanation. What is the nature of the populace that permitted this “small fraction of a man” to prevail? What is the social-psychological disposition of the American people that has furthered the nightmare of willfully chosen subordination? What is the history of America as it stretches back into the recesses of early Puritanism? Consider this passage from Sacvan Bercovitch‘s The American Jeremiad:
Only in the United States has nationalism carried with it the Christian meaning of the sacred. Only America, of all national designations, has assumed the combined force of eschatology and chauvinism. Many societies have defended the status quo by reference to religious values … But only the American Way, of all modern ideologies, has managed to circumvent the paradoxes inherent in these approaches. Of all symbols of identity, only America has united nationality and universality, civic and spiritual selfhood, secular and redemptive history, the country’s past and paradise to be, in a single synthetic ideal. 
Is there not something of this Puritan view in contemporary American culture and politics, particularly on the right wing of the political spectrum? And have there not, over the generations since that time, been other sediments that have encrusted the nature of the American self and sunk deeper and deeper into its identity? Is it not the case, therefore, that to understand ourselves as a people in our unity and across the complexity of views that mark us as a nation, across all our diversity and contradiction, we need to excavate the layers of political personhood that have led us to the point at which we now find ourselves?
Of course this is a formidable task, but it is made even more difficult by two factors:
First, the social systems that have followed each other in time are sufficiently different from each other so as to act as transformations of the selfhood that has been bequeathed them. In other words, the early Puritan tendency cannot be traced straight through without recognizing the manner in which succeeding epochs of American social and industrial history altered its nature, saving something of its punitive grandiosity, but acquiring new aspects of corporate subordination, fierce individual competitiveness and unmoored anxiety. I am not proposing that old and misleading cliche that to know ourselves we must know what our past has been; rather, I propose that the past is continually present, continually growing within what we recognize as our current identities.
Second, there is the paradoxical fact that we know more about how to approach this history as we have acquired perspectives and comprehensions that previous generations lacked. We know more about political economy, particularly the contribution made available by Marxist theory as it attunes our awareness to the facts of class structure, accumulation, domination of the media and the structures of the political system that are themselves heavily influenced by the underlying systems of corporate power. On the side of “subjectivity,” we have learned a great deal regarding the nature of mental development and its pathologies, so that we can no longer merely read the surface of our society while discarding everything we have learned from psychoanalytic theory and its variations. We have abandoned theological explanations, although there remain sizable constituencies who continue to cling to these remnants of the ancient codes that view society in terms of the hierarchical power of wealth, ethnic identity and gender emanating from transcendent spiritual forces and whose political identity represents much less a “party” – since they lack any entry into the contemporary world – than a terrified embrace of each other and a disdainful rejection of the major tenets of the Enlightenment.
The paradox that I alluded to derives from the fact that, as we know more, we also have more work to do if we are to make full use of our knowledge. If we wish to understand why those on the right abhor science, are terrified by the growing equality of women and ethnic minorities, genuflect to power and cruelty, worship tradition, detest distinction and diversity and glorify “the people” while acting to destroy the protection of individual rights, we will have to bring together these theoretical systems of political economy and psychology. This is not to say that efforts of this sort have been completely lacking, only that they are relatively scarce in proportion to the danger that threatens us. It also seems that very few works even purport to possess the same power as the writings of the Frankfurt School that brought together in one opus the considerations of economics, politics, culture, media, history and psychology that are all so relevant to our current situation. This has become an age of specialization in which most intellectuals know one subject well to the detriment of their understanding of – or even interest in – cognate concerns.
How did this happen? The easy answer is that we know so much more now and, consequently, cannot expect any individual to master the entire relevant corpus needed to reach a comprehensive truth. But this answer is shortsighted and inverted. It is not that the part is easier to understand than the whole; it is difficult or impossible to understand individual subjects when they are isolated from their larger contexts. How would we attempt to understand the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s by concentrating solely on economics, for example? Even if it were the case that the chaos of capitalism in the post- World War I period was enough to explain the ensuing breakdown of traditional order, how would this consideration explain the rise of Hitler? Without knowing a good deal of previous German history, culture, religion, family structure, psychological tendencies, and their reciprocal influences, we would remain at a considerable loss. The idea that the part is easier to understand than the whole is a misconception of our age, a symptom of a tendency toward atomization that has infected modern understanding.
The imperative need to understand the range of relevant disciplines is as true in attempting to understand the current situation in the United States as it was in relation to Nazi Germany. At this moment, current movements to the “right” are explained on the basis of economic chaos – the loss of jobs and homes and the ensuing anxiety they produce. There is no denying that the particular assault on the lives of so many during the current recession is some important part of the explanation for the current passivity and idiocy of our political reality. However, this occasion itself needs to be explained, and we are consequently forced back to prior historical occurrences that have led to massive public apathy: such circumstances as the wrenching decline of the labor movement, the rise of manipulative mass media, the increasing tendency toward fragmented labor, the autonomy of technology, the disintegration of the traditional family and the buying and selling of current political mythology by capitalist elites and their oxymoronically labeled “think tanks.”
It is also true that devoid of any coherent “left” movement, individuals who regard themselves as socialists, progressives, Marxists or other dissenters from the main currents of American life tend to speak from the purview of their own individual life experiences. We lack any coherent, multifaceted, institutionalized organizations in which individuals of different skills and sensibilities can come together to share views, debate the various issues of our time and publish works of value to the larger community. Lacking such an organized stream of reflection fed by many diverse and complementary orders of intelligence, it is no wonder that simple explanations have come to suffice.
The economic explanation of inaction and despair by an appeal to the immediate effects of the current economic crisis seems relevant, until one asks why it is still not enough to produce resistance. Certainly, some part of the answer must be that in a capitalist society with limited experience in organized opposition and even less capacity to remember the resistance that has occurred, we tend to be thrown back upon the circuits of capitalism itself, whereby individuals move in and out of compliance and resentment depending on their experience of the business cycle. Certainly no persistent opposition to capitalism can be founded on the basis of its own determinations. For this reason alone, economic factors cannot provide the motivational foundation of a living, critical perspective, and we must turn to larger currents of social existence to explain our own responses – or lack of them – to what we know to be an ongoing catastrophe.
Understanding ourselves is a complex project, and as we are made up of such aspects of our existence as our history, culture, psychology, economic activity and social life, we are obligated to learn of their nature and influence if we wish to be their agents rather than the mere recipients of their influence. It is certainly necessary and proper to condemn Bush, but it is far from sufficient. Why have we tolerated, accepted and even chosen this egregious monstrosity with so few manifestations of overt opposition? Relevant answers to this question throw light not only on the meaning of Bush’s presidency but also on the relation of the “left” to Obama and his failures, in which, once again, we are so deeply implicated.
How many politically thoughtful friends do you know who were deceived by the promises made by the president during his political campaign – by the empty rhetoric, by the financial support of banking and insurance interests? How many progressives succumbed to the thrill of an apparently progressive candidate ready-made – one they could support, but did not have to labor to know and accept at a level more trenchant than a promise of hope and change. And how many took the opportunity to permit Obama to stand in the realm of their fantasy of American history as the reconciliation of Black and White interests and the resolution of racist antagonisms, the promise of effortless transcendence and the consequent proof of American virtue, and, of course, by implication, of their own – our own. And yet, at this moment, Black impoverishment remains at least twice that of Whites and is not on a course of improvement, for race cannot be separated from the economy and from the long, sordid history of American social injustice and projected fantasies of evil, those parts of ourselves we cannot tolerate and prefer to locate in the lives of others. It is time to pursue these larger truths, for we are constituted out of them and cannot transcend their dehumanizing limits without this most serious struggle.
I hope it is clear that I do not possess the answers to the questions that lie behind my reflections. What I know is that these questions regarding compliance with corruption are difficult and will require the collective efforts of many of us acting in concert. The exercise of this effort will in turn require the capacity to endure in the face of such rot as Bush embodied.
One of Weber’s most trenchant essays ends this way:
It would be nice if matters turned out in such a way that Shakespeare’s Sonnet should hold true:
Our love was new, and then but in the spring,
When I was wont to greet it with my lays;
As Philomel in summer’s font doth sing,
And stops her pipe in growth of riper days.
But such is not the case … Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective… Only he has the calling
for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer … . 
We have never known this “new spring,” and yet we shall assuredly meet with what will seem to us endless stupidity and inhumanity. In the embrace of a collective life, we may approach some sense of the ripeness we have not known politically. Our task is to persist in the “boring of hard boards” until they give way to a more hospitable home for our “passion and perspective.”
1. Sacvan Bercovitch; The American Jeremiad; The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison Wisconsin, 1978, p. 176.
2. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, editors, From Max Weber; A Galaxy Book, New York, 1958, p. 128.
This work by Truthout is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.
Support Truthout’s work with a $10/month tax-deductible donation today!
Richard Lichtman is a philosopher who specializes in the relationship between the social and psychological dimensions of human life. His approach is broadly interdisciplinary: he has taught in departments of philosophy (University of California, Berkeley), humanities (San Francisco State University), sociology (University of California, Santa Cruz) and psychology (The Wright Institute, California School of Professional Psychology, etc.) and has been a faculty member of the Council on Educational Development (CED) program at the University of California, Los Angeles. His books also indicate the range of his interests: Essays in Critical Social Theory covers a broad range of topics in economic, social, and political theory, while The Production of Desire is a detailed analysis of the works of Marx and Freud.