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A Political Culture of Imperial Decline


Political Culture in America is not a monolith, despite my argument in several CounterPunch articles that its repressive features, itself reflecting a high concentration of political-economic power and ideological cohesion, suggest a unitary social formation in which dissent is increasingly shrinking. Radicalism is not what it once was, a hard-earned detachment from ruling-class values and the commensurate will, based on an independent, non-capitalist political consciousness, to act on behalf of fundamental social change. I admit that the terms “monolith” and “unitary” appear to have similar meanings and outcome, yet the former is not warranted so long as pockets of authentic social protest, even when expressed as ideas, do exist. But unitary is another matter: for the social system has become so predominantly antiradical (and in the world, counterrevolutionary) that the ideological spectrum is shifting steadily rightward, thereby pulling radicalism with it and poisoning the well of alternative/adversarial thought and action, rendering them essentially as fragments presently unable to make a dent in the whole (the social system itself).

That is why it is not surprising to find in America an underlying matrix of ideas and behavior translated into a unified public policy, domestic and foreign, stemming from a common source, the matrix, again, capitalism, the convenient self-description, Exceptionalism. When one sees presidential authorization for targeted assassination it is unlikely to find public works for the unemployed or the strict regulation of banking and hedge funds. Policies run on the same track. Democratization is not wanted, period. Thus, connecting the dots becomes subversive, lest it—i.e., critical awareness—lead back to the matrix in its undisguised splendor: empty of moral content, dedicated to war, intervention, markets, regime change, financial skullduggery, an infinite list of abuses practiced when the advancement of capitalism is sought.

And that is but the surface description of commonality. Capitalism, particularly accentuated in America, where even the matrix of capitalism, if we are to follow Louis Hartz’s insight, has a Lockean foundation second to none (i.e., the absence of feudalism, the absolutistic emphasis on the property right), makes of the social system linear in its historical progression, almost impervious to change, self-enclosed in its structural-ideological development—unless more decisive action than heretofore is taken. I stress this, not to dampen spirits, or slide into a mood of deep pessimism, or argue the thesis of consensus that was so fashionable among historians and sociologists (e.g., Hofstadter, Lipset, Daniel Bell) beginning in the 1950s and still kicked around in the substratum of the academic mind. Rather, my point—to beat a dead horse—is the interrelatedness of antidemocratic, repressive, and even seemingly progressive or liberal actions and policies; here, two widely different examples of societal tensions, unrelated, if one fears staring into the abyss of what constitutes America’s identity, compatible, indeed, my above term, interdependent, if one does not.

The first, raised in a New York Times editorial, ”Detroit’s Immigration Solution,” (Feb. 6), involves a near- universal admission of failure—a major city bankrupt, fast losing population, its public obligations such as pensions thus far unmet: collapse, disaster, any way you cut it. The Michigan legislature’s response, an emergency management plan, superseding the authority of local government, in effect, kicking the city while it is down, and now, the governor’s recommendation, facilitating the immigration of 50,000 degree-holding savants (Silicon Valley on Lake St. Clair) to revitalize the city’s economy. Whoa. There is no mention of what brought Detroit to its knees, from the flight of industry to the illegal activities of mega-banks in pedaling exotic (worthless) financial instruments, or for that matter, disinvestment in a predominantly black city (as in not providing an effective jobs-policy or vital social safety net), so that Detroit becomes the showcase—i.e., scapegoat—for the wider failure of America, too busy fighting wars, too short-changed domestically because some one-half of all discretionary spending goes to the military, to care about what happens to the polity and its people.

This is not an issue of patriotic chauvinism—caring about the polity and its people normally is the moral obligation of government. In a class-state, however, both are expendable when it suits the interest of ruling groups. Detroit emblems the America of our time, or rather, is the living carcass of what America has done to itself, and by extension, the world at large. The mental-set is conquest, hegemony, waste, sterilized killing (as in drone “pilots” sitting 8,000 miles away pulling death-wielding levers in comfort), and, in the name of counterterrorism, perpetrating soft-glove terrorism on the American people via massive surveillance. In such a context, from every which way, the negation of social democratization, how expect any just solution to Detroit’s problems, and the Detroits down the line possibly awaiting the same fate?

My New York Times Comment on the aforementioned editorial, same date, follows:

America will do anything not to face its inner vacuity and moral rot. Sure, look elsewhere for relief and for conveniently skipping over the challenges which confront a nation in decline. Never mind, the insult Snyder’s plan is to the black population of Detroit, as though by definition both inferior and to blame for the bankruptcy. Bank of America and other vendors of toxic instruments that helped bring the city’s financial position down go unpunished, even bailed out, while Detroiters black and white become the victims.

America’s priorities are so screwed up–I refer specifically to the grotesque military budget and thirst for global hegemony–that in time there will be more Detroits on the economic landscape. Crumbling infrastructure nationwide is one indication, assaults on the social safety net another, of the cost of world military superiority. Here we speak of 50,000 immigrants, when in fact POTUS has done nothing for domestic job creation and unemployment itself is high.

In this light, immigrants become analogous to strikebreakers, less because they will be taking others’ jobs, but because they would embody the policy of further cheapening the lives of a resident population, rendering them captive to still worse treatment. Detroit becomes early 20th century India–caste system and all; or perhaps the pre-1960 American South, with blacks “put in their place.”

Stop intervention, assassination, prejudgment of inferiority of blacks in Detroit, then let’s see!

From Detroit to the case of McCullen v. Coakley before the US Supreme Court, in which Elizabeth McCullen sat at the entrance of a downtown Boston Planned Parenthood clinic, attempting to dissuade clients from entering the facility seeking an abortion, in violation of the 35-foot perimeter surrounding these clinics established by the Massachusetts legislature because there had been a history of violence by anti-abortion activists directed therein, may seem a leap of faith and logic, but once more we see the same interdependent factors at work: a social order, here primarily through the voice of Justice Scalia, superimposing a paradigm of extreme reaction, to conform to religious teachings which become code for a self-righteous, moralistic America whose silent injunction is to accept without question the ruling dictates of business, the military, the nation’s presumed destiny of greatness. Ideology trumps personal rights. Abortion is made evil incarnate, woman and physician alike, subtly merged now with terrorists, a decade ago, with communists, neatly fitting the piece of the jigsaw puzzle that must be hammered into place, lest somehow becoming undone, scattered on the floor.

My point: anti-abortion sentiment imposed on others is a deprivation of civil liberties given legitimacy, if Church doctrine were not enough, by the climate of massive surveillance, the invasion of and categorical disregard for the right of privacy, an invasion of human self-determination which confronts individuals at every turn, from consumerism to the required show of patriotism. Decisions are best left to the market or to the political leadership, or to business moguls, but thinking on one’s own, as also in asking what went wrong with Detroit, is subversive and to be systemically discouraged. Linda Greenhouse, in her New York Times legal affairs column, “Stories We Tell,” (Feb. 6), superbly provides the details of the case and argumentation before the Court.

My NYT Comment on the article, same date, follows:

Greenhouse identifies the significance of these cases when she writes, “a claim by religion for primacy in the public square.” Scalia’s obvious bias speaks volumes about the degradation of the Constitution in recent years. Obama’s concessions on the issue of contraceptives indicates complicity in that direction. From several quarters we see the tarnishing and destruction of justice.

As a non-lawyer I may seem illogical, but I submit that we must connect the dots: the McCullen case and that of the Little Sisters of the Poor is on the same continuum as Obama and DOJ’s employment of the Espionage Act to silence and punish whistleblowers. Legal interpretation is experiencing a unified political-cultural retreat in which, not a conservative but outright reactionary agenda characterizes the direction America is taking. Abortion should not be the plaything of politics in the first place. So much for privacy and respect for the individual’s rights; yet, again connect the dots, how is the invasion in that realm different from the massive surveillance of the American people and therefore the contempt shown privacy and individual rights by all three branches of government?

Yes, McCullen is an agitator obstructing self-determination, but the Court is far worse, because, as the guardian of justice, it is closing its eyes to cherished principles of civil liberties, and instead giving expression to intolerance, bigotry, and opportunistic, not to say, slippery, reasoning.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism.  His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism.

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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