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Psychodynamics of US Default


The battle is (temporarily) over. The nation, organized in its corporate-military, hierarchical structure, won; the people, as far as ever from the democratization of the social structure, lost. Nothing has in fact changed from the standpoint of fundamental public policy. The US militaristic-interventionist posture in the world emerges unscathed, indeed, not even mentioned by either party in the congressional debates, although largely responsible for the financial difficulties. America bathes in a sea of false consciousness, still thinking itself above criticism for international criminal behavior—in this case, beyond intervention, beyond targeted assassination, beyond Third World counterrevolution (all wrapped in the protective cloak of the current rationale for hegemonic maintenance, counterterrorism), instead relating now to having endangered the global economic system and consequent human suffering of literally millions, for no other reason than finding ways to preserve its military establishment while still being able to pay its bills, chiefly in that quarter.

Self-congratulation is the order of the day, from POTUS on down, as though postponement of the in-house resolution of pending emergencies—shutdown, default—had addressed, or even was intended to address, deeper foundational issues of American democracy (?), such as surveillance on a massive scale, the geostrategic framework of Far Eastern political-ideological-economic penetration (viz., confrontation with China), bipartisan reinforcement of weakening the bargaining strength of labor and preventing the spoliation of the environment. In sum, the crisis momentarily resolved merely makes possible business as usual, which means, capitalism unimpeded while unemployment and the continued growth, amidst wealth concentration perhaps hitherto unseen, of an undeclared underclass, form the background of the mock debate in Washington.

To Congress, it is not mock, however, but a life-and-death struggle over principle, in which principle has been so cheapened as to reveal the utter moral bankruptcy, bordering on political imbecility as well, of all those involved—and a befogged public, detached from the skewed priorities of a nation shoveling money into war-making, directly at the expense of a meaningful social safety net, merely acquiesce. Nothing, it seems clear, has been learned by the recent fracas. Republicans, nursing their wounds, ready to strike again, Democrats, preparing to parry the thrust, self-righteously rallying around Obama and the troops, the whole a tableau of solipsistic America showing contempt for everything outside of itself (yes, even so-called “friends and allies”), social cruelty to everything within, except, naturally, the privileged, presumably superior, among us, frequently organized by categories (business, finance, military leaders) to ensure an inclusive elite, rather than mere individual rankings, which might invite social criticism.

We know which side our bread is buttered on, so that even the more slow-witted Republicans steer clear, in their presumed drive for economy in government, from reducing the weight and influence of the Vested Interests. Budget battles, whichever “side” wins, both so Janus-faced as to be comfortable bedfellows, the main contours of domestic and foreign policy continue, foremost, militarized internationalism and a continued financialization of capitalism shaping a domestic economy and polity in which stratification of classes ever widens—in true Biblical fashion, the poor be ever with us.

These political skirmishes are diversions plain and simple from the recognition of what lies just beyond our noses: the Class-State, groomed, for popular approval, as the National-Security State (for which patriotism forms a compulsive obligation), itself, I find deeply regrettable to say, the façade for an encroaching, distinctively American, in ideology, but not in structure, form of rudimentary (i.e., still imperfectly developed) fascism, the ideology, giving the US the benefit of the doubt about uniqueness, because of the doctrine of Exceptionalism, yet structurally, not unlike the preliminary features of the organization of business in 20th century Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Together, the unique and the generic blend well. In America, Exceptionalism drives forward structural monopolization, consolidation, supra-organization in trade associations, all recognizable elements in the unification of the business system (for its own sake, but also as flooring for a strong military), which, absent Exceptionalism, but perhaps not dissimilar ideological formulas, one finds its counterpart in Germany, business, sector-by-sector, organized in “fronts,” while in Italy and Japan, corporatism possibly more cleanly defined and executed.

Psychodynamics of default refers, then, to an obliviousness of harming others, a single-minded pressing forward, totally absorbed, self-defined as conquest, in the search for dominance—default representing a fulcrum by which to keep America and the world on a tether, always mindful and appreciative of the virtues of American capitalism and the prowess of its military. Without America, where would the world be? By contrast, all negotiations failing, why cry over human suffering here and abroad? E.g., let the unemployed of Europe—ungrateful to America to begin with—learn to play by the rules of IMF-World Bank austerity recommendations.

The moral abyss that I refer to—here, not the callousness of turning away from the consequences of US financial decisions, but the absolute desensitization toward what has been left out: a nonnegotiable military presence which permeates consciousness, policy-making, the nation’s very identity, in disregard of all that is, or rather, could be, the moral obligation of government to its people and the world beyond.

My New York Times Comment on Damien Cave’s insightful article, “Viewing U.S. in Fear and Dismay” (Oct. 16), on world opinion on the eve of decision on default—mine, same date:

Shutdown, default, both lead to exposure: America’s military-obsession has drained the coffers, revealing ugly priorities of hegemony at all costs–to itself and the rest of the world. We deserve global opprobrium, the world still reeling from a largely US-created ’07 financial crisis. Why single out Tea Partiers, when both parties promote the twin evils of our time, war and deregulation, themselves interrelated symptoms of structural-political decline?

Repair the US image abroad? We’re beyond that. The world knows armed drones for targeted assassination. The world knows intervention. The world knows the pivot, the rebalance of military forces in dangerous provocation to isolate and contain China. How can you repair failure of statesmanship? How repair what, from the article, people recognize self-indulgence, an exceptionalism rotting in the chaos of simple greed. The man/woman on the street in Greece or Mexico knows what we in America refuse to see: the US runs amuck at home and abroad, at home, with massive surveillance (how square that with democracy?) and abroad, e.g., Trans-Pacific Partnership to impose our will on an entire region.

Democrats may derive satisfaction from Tea-Party irrationality, but are they and Obama any better? Since the end of World War II we’ve been a morally callous, demanding our own way, always on a bipartisan basis, with Democrats, like Clinton, indistinguishable from the two Bushs and Reagan before. Ah, the debacle–no way out.

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 in the fall of 2013.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at

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