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Functional Aspects of Dysfunction


“Kicking the can down the road” is an overused, much abused description—along with “stalemate,” etc.—of the current US political scene, as though a blistering ideological conflict has taken place and will continue (with Obama and the Democrats the saviors of the American polity), when in reality, all sides are lurching downward in basic agreement that the military establishment, and its promise for maintaining global hegemony, shall remain entirely intact, and the structure of wealth and power ditto, while working people and the poor—in the throes of further degradation and loss of status—submit to their increased immiserization.

What kicking the can accomplishes is the concerted postponement of legislation promoting the public welfare, even more, massive obfuscation resulting in preservation of the status quo.  “Compromise” is in the air, not as the reconciliation of the presumed extremes, but as a cover by which both sides can diminish the ideas and programs which are associated with advanced industrial democracies, a truly vibrant and effective social safety net.  A first-world nation grafted onto a Third World mental-set, government wholly disconnected from the needs and aspirations of the people.

The more smoke, the more compromise.  We’ve not seen anything quite like this before, even, or especially, in the time of McCarthyism, when large portions of the American people at least retained the wit to oppose (regrettably more internally in their minds than through actual protest) totalitarian means of achieving social control and the labor movement was not cowed into patriotic submission.  This is a bleak period, one in which even so-called Obamacare looks good, despite its numerous concessions to Vested Interests and the raising obstacles to a single-payer system.

Amid the circus of deficit-reduction discussions, American foreign policy wends its merry way (so much so that even domestic critics of Obama have more-or-less ignored this area and the way counterterrorism has evolved into—if not initiated as—a long-term effort at hegemony-maintenance of counterrevolution.  US troops are everywhere, as military planning takes on greater ambitions, most notably, of course, in the Pacific, but without foregoing “national-security interests” in the Middle East.  Next stop, Africa and Latin America, all on the watch and with the blessing of Obama.

When I say dysfunction is functional I mean, not a conspiracy-theory explanation of what is termed the “impasse,” but an historical-developmental pattern in which class-differential in income, wealth, power, and prestige has been taking place since the close of World War II, perfectly predictable and consistent in line with retaining the position of unilateral world leader in every realm necessary to the expansion of US capitalism and meeting challenges posed by socialism and decolonialism to capitalism as the reigning international system.  Keeping the lid on authentically progressive—i.e., democratizing—trends at home appeared necessary to mounting an aggressive policy of intervention and market-penetration globally.

The economic surplus was never permitted to yield a social-welfare benefit, one diminishing objective class differences and all that would mean raising the bottom-half of US society into a meaningful role in American political-economic life.  The choice was always opposite, visibly, e.g., Taft-Hartley, invisibly, if you will, the multiple cues of self-debasement and distraction, perhaps starting with the new glorification of wealth via enticing consumerism (the Gilded Age renewed) and entrepreneurial wisdom, which engendered admiration of the powerful and proper deference to their wishes, and, on foreign policy, a no-questions-asked attitude, as the goodies and thrills are empathetically passed along as the result of national honor and manly conquest.  The greatest hoax since P.T. Barnum, as the wealth of these actions was siphoned off to the coffers of vast wealth, from defense industries to international finance.

Here we are, then, awaiting the next Washington –Go-Round, as wages stagnate, unemployment remains steady or increases, targeted assassination continues, surveillance increases its smothering effect on the American people’s thoughts and actions, so, Welcome to the Disney Land of Authoritarian Premises, in both meanings, a proposition antecedently supposed (Exceptionalism / Hegemony), and a specific locale (today, the USA, tomorrow, the ….. courtesy Brecht’s Arturo Ui).

My New York Times Comment (Oct. 20th) on editorial, “High Cost of Low Politics,” same date:

Within the current political dialogue, a constructive voice: criticism of brinkmanship, call for higher taxes on the extremely wealthy, and emphasis on job creation. What is NOT discussed are two signal failures of the Obama administration: the very high “defense” budget, itself a reflection of an interventionist foreign policy and a geostrategic framework vis-a-vis China (the rebalancing of military assets); and a domestic policy from Day One that refused to address job creation itself, as well as major policy areas (deregulation and a compromised health care plan) which undermined an attack on underconsumption.

We are witnessing the devolution of the American economy and society alike on the altar of policies intended for wealth concentration at home and still-hegemonic ambitions abroad, in a world of newly emerging multiple power centers wherein the US has to get used to more moderate and modest positioning, lest it witness a rapidly declining status.

Yes, Obama’s predecessors got the ball rolling, but–despite his liberal/progressive groupies, BLIND to his record–he has continued, and even accelerated policies and programs detrimental to the well-being of the average American. We look for scapegoats–Tea Partiers, Republicans in general–when the real analysis must focus both on Democratic complicity and the narrowness of the ideological spectrum. And so we gear up for the next round of brinkmanship–not over essentials (i.e., the military) but further cosmetics.

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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