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Dynamics of False Consciousness: America Today


Class is integral to capitalism, the former its defining structure, the latter the directed purpose of a societal-historical process of wealth concentration whose intended purpose is systemic inequality. To legitimize this historical formation over time, given its inherent and myriad features of domination, requires persistent, sustaining, effective doses of false consciousness transmitted downward through the social order in the form of patriotism, diversions and distractions, and the invitation to identify with war (hegemony) and expansion (imperialism). This formula of Exceptionalism, the ideological cover for America’s special brand of capitalism, has worked in domestic and international politics through formal and informal social control at home and a pattern of aggressive, largely unilateral, combat, intervention, and confrontation in foreign affairs: the full blossoming of capitalist development as a counterrevolutionary force arresting trends toward and possibilities of global democratization, anathema to capitalism and America both.

I say “anathema” because what I am describing did not occur overnight, or even following the Second World War, at which point dramatic policy choices were coming into convergence, as in the squaring off of world ideological systems obstructing the universalization of capitalism led by America. Reaching the heights of power and influence in that war’s aftermath then defined a still higher stage, from coalition leadership (“the free world”) to exclusive hegemon calling the tune to actions to the US’s advantage and on its behalf. There is nothing solely deterministic in history, nor, for that matter, foreordained by a kindly, superseding deity; yet, consecutiveness both in policy and action, rooted in systemic requirements (from the maximization of profits and the creation of surplus capital as a means to further investment, to class dynamics which ensure the security of ruling groups and their potency in decision-making at all levels of government and also ensure, the twin to surplus capital, surplus labor, by means of under-consumption via low-wages doctrine and inequitable sharing of wealth distribution) and exploitation itself.

Nothing new about this, the capitalization of chattel slavery in America, with emancipation, a precursor to a fully elaborated system of wage labor now articulated, by slavery’s removal, as part of the uniform growth of specifically modern institutions of law and economics, property-centered, with slavery no longer a structural impediment: capitalism as a runaway locomotive on a single track. But even before plantation slavery had become a decisive factor in the US political economy, we see in the very formation of America the weakening if not abandonment of feudalism as a European relic unsuited for transplanting in the New World, thereby leaving capitalism a clear field unencumbered by political-social restraints to fill out the structural and ideological vacuum created by migration. Purist capitalism from take-off to, now, landing, so historically defined as even to subsume slavery, a premodern formation, ultimately within its capacious maw (yes, that of a voracious carnivore). There were no exceptions allowed, labor, from the start of industrialism, subjected to strikebreaking and state-sponsored violence, and in agriculture, serfdom of a peculiarly capitalist kind, with sharecropping and debt peonage, all in all then, the historical-structural foreclosure of ALTERNATIVES to capitalism, a behemoth which assumed total proportions in molding the culture and politics of society.

A capitalist polity has no need for internal dissent, if it wishes to preserve its monolithic class system. What I described above is represented not by an elite conspiracy, but the sum-total of countless decisions matter-of-factly taken whenever and wherever class prerogatives, decisions of war and peace, trends toward consolidation and monopolization, are opposed or resisted by working people, until finally the latter have become habituated/conditioned to acceptance of the going reality as the normalization of life and of order, a framework within which exclusion from power is compensated for by membership in the club, albeit on a subordinate basis, to engage in the exploitation of others still further down the Great Chain of Being, blacks at home, along with other designated out-groups, and overseas, whether through outsourcing, market-penetration, or war, intervention, or regime change, whole nations and populations, especially peasantries victimized by their own nations’ ruling groups. Thus, a never-ending exploitative sequence of power-relations founded on military strength and geopolitical considerations.

We come to today, the fruit of centuries of internal capitalist development, an unprecedented mal-distribution of wealth, a corresponding powerlessness of the mass citizenry, the intensified build-up of military power symbiotically linked to political-strategic goals of financial-industrial-commercial dominance inaugurating a stage of globalization stabilized it is hoped to perfection, as satisfying the dream of permanently freezing into place America’s culminating role in world history. An immodest projection? History itself stops at the American shoreline, all else to be the fulfillment of its destiny as the Empire of One. Perhaps think of where we are, beginning a new year, not of hope but of fear, a pervasive fear of terrorism (today, an armed camp in Times Square, and other major cities coast-to-coast), a fear whose source, we dimly realize, has been the actual record of US involvement worldwide, from Cold War conflict with respect to Russia and China and the internal subversion and overthrow of progressive governments and societies, on one hand, to, particularly, intervention in the Middle East on Israel’s behalf, then extending outward to Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Iran, all directions that Israel deems a threat to its own superiority and security. The Arab and Muslim nations, themselves saturated with US military bases, are expected to submit to such regional and global dictation, not realizing, on America’s part, that resentment follows intervention, a seedbed for terrorism which cannot be eradicated until and unless there is a fundamental change in American policy—and even then the whiff of blowback will remain in the air.

2016 will not usher in a year of peace and freedom. America is too committed, by bipartisan agreement, to a course of sustained aggrandizement, the threat of terror seemingly confirming the need for pressing forward, a domestic climate of narrowing social goals of concentration of wealth and power accompanied by hostility to dissent, a foreign-policy context of unyielding claims to moral virtue as imperialist underpinning and, its concrete expression, demands for military and trade partnerships (TPP, the latest example) directing the world’s wealth and resources to America’s coffers, and that of its “friends and allies.” On crucial matters, here, I hold foreign policy as determinant, there is no difference between the major parties, hence, the upcoming elections an overwhelmingly favorable plebiscite in favor of imperialism and, if need be, war. Trump and Clinton, choose your poison. An end to police racial violence, not when the shadow of ethnocentrism and xenophobia casts a centuries-old pall over the landscape of structural-ideological bigotry. Tax avoidance at the apex of American capitalism, not altered anytime soon. Spoliation of the environment, just ask Oklahoma residents this week about the fracking in their state—or the deeper contemptuous treatment of Nature through pushing to the earth’s polar extremities in search of wealth, the ravaging of rain forests, similarly, and the thousand-and-one developmental and extractive schemes with no regard to future generations. Not a happy note on which to extend new year’s greetings, except, between the lines, a plea to us all to RESIST.

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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