Friday, July 17, 2009

Ideological America

Photo by Margaret Bourke White, 1937

Toujoursdan linked to this article on his website about America speeding on down the road to ruin while wearing ideological blinders. It's a very interesting article that points out the atomized nature of American society, and how that benefits the oligarchy which profits off an ideology of "family values," and capitalism. This deeply conflicted ideology may be all to the benefit of a handful of rogues, but it has legions of true believers.

I wonder how America became an ideological country in the first place. American thinkers were once renowned, not for ideological purity, but for pragmatism. There was once a famous distaste for abstraction (an inheritance from English thinkers) in the American world view. Now, so many of our public thinkers sound like Hegel with Southern accents.

My friend David Kaplan once remarked how Republicans these days remind him of his old Communist acquaintances, and his old Communist friends reminded him of Early Christians. All of his old radical socialist acquaintances were on fire with something like the Holy Ghost, and determined to spread their gospel to save the world. They even cherished visions of apocalypse in which the true believers would be vindicated.
Like the Communists of old, David points out that today's Republicans value ideological fidelity and party discipline above all else. Also like those old time Communists, Republicans today have an all-encompassing ideological world view than combines market fundamentalist capitalism with a version of Calvinist Christianity in its more fundamentalist and apocalyptic forms. It is individualist in the extreme. The only real community this ideology recognizes is "the family," and even that is restricted to the immediate biological family of parents and children. The ancient Italian concept of La Famiglia (the family as a kind of nation joined by blood ties) is as alien to this ideology as a Soviet collective. Frequently there are darker appeals to race, but even that is more about individual identity than it is about any kind of tribal solidarity. It is all about the lone individual in a world of other lone individuals, alone before God, and alone before Society and the Law. Success or failure in this world is entirely in the hands of the individual.

Beyond whatever merits this ideology has, like all ideologies, it is an abstract view of the world. It is not interested in history or historical circumstances. Indeed, in the early days of the Bush II Administration, its resident ideologues contemptuously referred to "reality based" thinkers. The hell with history! We're out to "build Capitalism!"
This ideology may well have been a scoundrel's figleaf, but that is the role of most ideology. Soviet citizens once referred to their ruling Communist Party as the "red mafia." The reason why this ideology failed was not because it was improperly implemented or because of corruption. It failed for the same reason that all ideologies fail. It crashed into the wall of actual history. The disastrous failure of Paul Bremmer's tenure as Viceroy in newly conquered Iraq is a case in point. It wasn't the corrupt mercenaries and contractors responsible for that failure. It was true believing and well meaning ideologues who mistakenly thought that conquered Iraq was a blank slate upon which to write out a whole new model of society, that 5000 years of accumulated history could simply be ignored. The past, said Freud, is always there for us to trip over.

I think ideological America is a legacy of the Cold War and of the dominance of a religious faction that values doctrinal fidelity above everything. Adam Smith, that Scottish pragmatist, would have been very surprised to see himself described as the founding father of an ideology. I doubt he would recognize his ideological progeny out of the university economics departments and think tanks. They might not recognize him. Smith, unlike his purist progeny, believed a certain amount of taxation and government regulation were necessary for the good of society. Smith opposed monopolies and favored collective bargaining for workers. I seriously doubt he and Ayn Rand would have gotten along well at all. Smith was interested in relieving and avoiding shortages. He was not interested in making any kind of utopia for the many or for the few. For Smith, capitalism as an "untried ideal" would have been incomprehensible.

The Soviets had an all-encompassing ideology, so certain powerful people here decided that we needed one too. So, Adam Smith's legacy was embalmed and enshrined in the equivalent of Lenin's tomb. A Capitalist ideology began to evolve that started to ape the Communist ideology. The University of Chicago and The Heritage Foundation began producing legions of would-be capitalist Suslovs, purist ideological enforcers. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, legions of evangelical fundamentalist Christians poured in who enthusiastically played the role of Red Guards demanding fidelity to doctrine from the party leaders. Theirs was a religious outlook that valued fidelity to text and to doctrine above all else. The absolute individualism in their religious beliefs (Jesus as "personal Lord and Savior") harmonized well with the atomized world view of ideological capitalism. Their religious nationalism, their belief in a messianic America divinely chosen and favored gave an imperial momentum to this ideology.

American business has long used divide et impera tactics to defeat labor movements. The most effective method for sewing division was in appeals to racism. For over a century, whenever a mine or a mill would organize and strike, management would bring in a busload of desperate and brutalized Black scab workers. After the race riots were over, the union would be broken, and management would have a docile, if sullen, work force. Organized labor only began to have a measure of success when it started to self-segregate. Labor is only now starting to return to the old idea of class solidarity crossing racial lines. Today's management tactics are more subtle. In my experience as part of a successful effort to organize a bookstore chain, the most effective tactic was to turn individual workers, not on the union leadership, but on each other. Management would create as tense and difficult a work situation as possible to get people to turn on each other. Apparently, "working as a team" stops when the team demands a contract.

I think our ruling oligarchy has long pulled the same tactic on the rest of the country. Today, everyone is turned against everyone else, and we are all reduced to a fool's liberty; we can say and do whatever we like, but only because it doesn't matter.

1 comment:

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Very true. And I have seen it in my own Time.

I started Economics with Cultural Geography in 1975 during Lord Keynes' rule, and since it has all gone to the dogs...

Reagan, Thatcher, the Contras...

Some Walls have fallen, that's true, but others have risen in their staed...