An Age of Democratic Ferment?


Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, a slowly awakening realization that the contemporary political-social order, even allowing for specific national differences of history, structure, and population composition, has not been responsive to peoples’ needs and inmost aspirations (which no amount of repression can entirely quell).  Yet, America obviously lags far behind, its own people manifestly incapable of empathizing with others’ social struggle—except for phony talk at the presidential level about freedom and oneness, as in the Cairo speech, and now, Berlin—and instead, clinging to propagandistic verities presently gathered up under the heading of counterterrorism, succumb to the toxic formula of patriotism-consumerism-xenophobia, the last-named because radical, immigrant, terrorist, rolled together, becomes the Other to which law is suspended and anything goes. That the Occupy Movement tied itself in knots with its anti-elitist rituals (even to the extent of regarding programmatic demands, since not all would agree, as to be avoided), and, despite mammoth problems at home, allowed itself to drift, and ultimately fizzle, only goes to show the depth of America’s slumber.  Not even political theater, however superficial, can find purchase.

Brazil today should make us all shame, except that US ruling groups remain in their comfort zone, fast in the knowledge in spite of gross provocations (the rise in fares in public transportation in Brazil hardly compares with the increasing destruction of the public sphere itself in America, and the current assault on the social safety net) , that the American people have not risen, or perhaps cannot rise, to the dignity of self-assertion, self-determination, self-awareness, in response to the policies and conditions brought about by what can only and necessarily be described as a unified upper stratum of wealth and power, fast coalescing around its financial and military elites.  In this context, surveillance now appears wholly adventitious, i.e., unnecessary, gratuitous, because the people are and have been already cowed, so that government measures become merely taunting examples and flaunting gestures to serve as reminders of where power lies.  We see an unconscious servitude to the presumed goodness and virtue (in the old days, “Exceptionalism” would do) of capitalism per se, and, the lesson being driven home, capitalism in its structural evolution into an advanced-mature form, eviscerating the political state in favor of privatization in all things (thereby leaving the social safety net in limbo), imbricated with a colossal military underpinning to create hoped-for permanent stability and expansion.

One is struck by just how much the government now takes for granted, beginning perhaps with the nation’s habituation to secrecy and, with it, war, intervention, regime change, targeted assassination, Espionage Act prosecution, a deteriorating environment, un- and underemployment, a ramshackle state of affairs if this were a democratic polity, but par for the course when upper groups pursue their own interests (in the name of the nation and the people), letting all else, including societal privations, go by the board.  Obama is the perfect embodiment of these trends, himself, not a causal factor, but happy to preside over the main contours of US historical development pointing toward the advent of a monopoly capitalism founded on the ethos and practice of, yes, privatization, affecting consciousness itself (as in the affirmation of greed and profits at-any-price) and wealth-inequality of a lopsided social structure, and, hand-in-hand, militarization of the factors promoting dynamism and growth in the system, such as trade, investment, ideological penetration, and, of course, the degree of global hegemony essential to prescribing the terms for their success—military supervision on a world scale.

Whether anything comes of the stirrings of unrest abroad, for Brazil, eruption for the moment is more like it, America reveals its inner dormancy with regard to political democratization of its social structure, economic framework, legal practices and juridical principles, and, more germane than ever, national-security assumptions and policies (for these too are fit subjects of democratization, for hegemonic aims,  purposes, and actions do not conduce to the equal treatment, or respect for the dignity and welfare, of other peoples).  Soon, it appears, political democratization will be perceived as a species of terrorism in its own right, the test being: what undermines the foundations of American institutions.  For we do to ourselves what no terrorist can accomplish, the denigration of once-thought (if even then never fully honored) imperishable truths of freedom of conscience and social justice.  The past, it seems, is coming back with a vengeance, this despite all the marvels of technology and so-called progress; for America is continually on the war path—the Open Door at the mouth of the cannon, the promiscuous intervention into the lives and thoughts of its citizens (think Alien & Sedition Acts, Palmer Raids, McCarthyism, HUAC in the past), brought forward in the terrifying reach of the National Security Agency and its data mining on a hitherto unattainable scale, and, not least, the government of, by, and for the wealthy, perhaps a constant from administration to administration, with possibly one interlude, the New Deal.

Even pessimism is passé.  Instead, numbness, indifference, a sinking back into a shrunken self, titillated by bread and circuses for relief, but constructive action for social change—look elsewhere, if at all.  I know these are not comforting thoughts (in my own case, and that of CP contributors and readers, the more so because we’ve lived a lifetime of political action, and, hopefully, refuse to stop now), yet while the world’s peoples begin to awaken or re-awaken to their exploitation, America is a backwater of reaction.  This means senescence pure and simple, the danger being that the US in a destructive fury will want to bring the world down to its level (of societal nihilism and/or jadedness) through the one thing it knows, and prepared the most for, best: military power and aggression.  I pray Brazil is able to sustain its momentum, which, at least in the short run, may destroy America’s lethargy and allow its people—all of us—to see how our leadership has betrayed our interest.  In the eyes of Obama, and the senators and representatives of both major parties, that would make us all terrorists.

Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University. His new book, Eichmann on the Potomac, will be published by CounterPunch/AK Press in the fall of 2013.


Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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