Herman Melville’s story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” written 160-odd years ago, is now more relevant than ever. Bartleby faces out to a blank wall–the subtitle is, “A Story of Wall Street”–his highest assertion of self being:”I prefer not to.” Melville, perhaps America’s greatest writer, was making an important statement: meaningful choice has been circumscribed, even by the mid-19th century, in American society. Not only was the heroic turned against itself, but a pervasive condition of alienation defined the individual’s inner life and relations to others. One encountered reality through basic compromises of the ideal vision of a democratic polity, so that engagement became complicity in the renewal of one’s alienation. This, Melville resolutely opposed.
So, too, did Sherwood Anderson seventy years later. (By coincidence, today the New York Times focuses on Elyria, Ohio, his birthplace and the locale for Winesburg, which remains essentially unchanged.) Anderson also captures the loneliness and sadness of American life, which finds the individual enclosed within walls, so that one’s highest affirmation becomes to say “No” to the materialism that trades in false values and destroys the human soul. From Melville to Anderson to the present, America is still in the same condition, only now in more intensified form in that we no longer recognize alienation and willingly accept complicity in a life devoid of self-knowledge and the cooperative social bonds which alone confers dignity on human beings.
Making the moral case for silence as imperative in the coming election may seem difficult. Liberals and many but not all progressives regard the choice to be crystal-clear: Romney, the Republican party, and the Tea Partiers in its midst represent retrograde social forces affecting all sectors of American life. The indictment is merited. Romney seeks a return to the Dark Ages of American capitalism. Both regulation and the social safety net would be severely impaired, and individual privacy would be invaded by a heightened puritanical zeal. Hester Prynne would lurk in every shadow. As for foreign policy, bluntness would rule the waves. One suspects that the Pentagon would be given a blank check to wage perpetual war founded on the belief that America, a pristine land of freedom, is surrounded by enemies, domestic and foreign. From the liberals’ standpoint, what could possibly be worse?
I submit, perhaps Barack Obama could be worse. It is not that he fails to transcend the Dark Ages of American capitalism and its rapacious behaviors, but rather, that he has, in ways that speak to a sophisticated corporatism which already has created societal foundations detrimental to America’s root democratic professions of freedom and human rights (themselves relegated for the most part to the mythology of exceptionalism). Obama, more than his predecessors, is the quintessential spokesperson for a mature capitalism in which government, as custodian of the public interest, is under assault from the forces of privatization, now gathering as a tidal wave which he is blithely surfing. The leader of government presides over its transformation into an annex of Wall Street. Really, a transmogrification, both of government and society, knit together in callous disregard for both economic and ethical constraints on greed, extremes in the distribution of wealth, and the widespread privation created by a political economy of market idolatry and financial chicanery.
Alienation had been classically described as the pain and anguish experienced through feelings of estrangement from one’s society—but at least the pain was felt, and therefore could be contested even when the source was unclear. One was not reduced to apathy or passivity. In that meaning, alienation was akin to the recognition although somewhat blurred of exploitation, in which case the idea of resistance had not been removed from consciousness. Today under mature capitalism social structure and cultural institutions are directed to the obliteration of political consciousness. Resistence to the actuality of hunger, homelessness, unemployment, home foreclosures, accelerated inequality of income and wealth, vast military outlays, all of which speak volumes about the decay of a democratic order, is less than conditions warrant and almost nonexistent. This is alienation in its more modern phase: exploitation is very much present, its recognition conversely is at a low ebb. Obama dances over a spiritual void, characterized by the inertia of once progressive social forces, whether labor unions, civil liberties and civil rights groups, or the mobilization of the poor themselves, as in councils of the unemployed at the advent of the Great Depression.
This form of alienation is the more insidious because, not merely inhering in the massification and depersonalization of the social order as described by Kafka, it has been actively sought via the political system by the power structure to ensure dominance above and acquiescence below—the “below” here referring to working people en masse (fully three-fourths of society) and those dissidents of all stripes who may still have their wits about them. The behavior of upper groups, while base and cruel, is not groundless or irrational. To have millions out of work, many of whom are no longer defined even as included in the labor force because of long-term unemployment, others while barely holding on facing demoralization, ill health, and disintegration of family ties, and youth, without prospects, becoming a lost generation more poignantly depressed than their counterpart of the 1920s, all of these represent a potential tinder box for, if not social revolt, then, almost equally to be feared, destabilization of the market society and economy. The poor can only be hidden, ignored, or forgotten up to a point, when the phrase “middle class” as an inclusive social diagram loses its celebratory aura. For mature capitalism to achieve optimal functionality, i.e., the generation of sustained profits to a small, increasingly cohesive elite, or ruling group, requires strong—or at least presenting the illusion of strength—co-optative leadership capable of absorbing the negative energies it produces.
In this regard, Obama is the ideal personification of mature capitalism. He is not a front man, cipher, or puppet; instead, he identifies fully with the social order, its hierarchical structure, and its social purposes. He needed no urgings from others to betray practically every campaign promise he made in 2008. Today, he is hardly the alternative to Romney, his record reducing him to the same plane as his opponent. For ruling groups, his advantage lies in his facility for dressing retrograde policies in liberal rhetoric, and more, keeping intact an electoral base in the depths of false consciousness who cannot, in denial, see how their interests, including that of the black community itself, have been violated. Broadly, he and Romney are committed to the Washington Consensus, its faith in market efficiency, rationality, and justness, which provides the ideological cornerstone for deregulation of the economy and, relatedly, the subordination of government to, while servicing the needs of, business.
Even here, one can debate who has the better argument, Romney emphasizing a stronger manufacturing presence, Obama–signaling the new—looking toward the financialization of the total economy. Yet neither one’s position detracts from further wealth concentration and an hierarchical system of power. By deeming finance modern, the wave of the future in economic growth, Obama in practice devalues manufacturing as perhaps premodern (a distinction fueled by his rhetorical liberalism). This shift in proportions of the economic base, especially in the context of globalization, where industrialization becomes widespread, intentionally offers a structural vehicle for greater if riskier profitability through the financial sector. A New American Exceptionalism is informally declared, banking as the ascendant force in achieving national and global prosperity. The hitch of course is that this has led to some of the shadiest practices in the history of American capitalism: predatory lending, credit default swaps, derivatives trading, exotic instruments having utmost ingenuity, all carrying the message, risk analysis be damned, as full speed ahead to enormous profits.
As a result, much of the global financial community was brought to its knees, a disaster in the making for some time, but most acutely felt not by bankers and fund managers but those whose equity was destroyed in the housing debacle and the poor and the unemployed who faced reductions in social services and benefits. Social misery, however, did not run parallel with enlightenment. Obama’s supporters either forget or do not wish to be reminded that among his first appointments were Geithner and Summers, who represented a straight line projection—and for that reason were chosen–from the Clinton administration of the framework of deregulation. The essence of Clintonian economics, under Robert Rubin’s tutelage, deregulation, primarily through the repeal of Glass-Steagall, laid the basis for the financial crisis of 2007.
The absence of effective financial regulation, true to this day, as seen in the feckless operations of the SEC, is only one dimension of basic agreement between the candidates. Others include such diverse areas (yet forming a unitary perspective of conservatism if not reaction) as gun control, climate change, oil drilling, the inclusion of coal mining in the energy mix, and despite nuances, immigration policy, and, although Romney is mum on the subject, their common disregard for civil liberties, justified as necessary by the threat of terrorism. On the last-named, it would be difficult for Romney to exceed or match Obama’s record in erecting the state secrets doctrine as a first principle of governance, leading to the creation of the National Security State, use of the Espionage Act to discourage whistleblowers, widespread surveillance, the practice of rendition, assault on habeas corpus rights, and, not to be forgotten, approval of indefinite detention–a new outburst equal to the Palmer Raids and McCarthyism in undermining the Constitution.
Withal, Obama appears untouchable; his genius for manipulating the American public, or rather, his base, including the many in distress, is critical to his leadership role in advancing American financial and business interests. The base, resting in adulatory mode, refuses to recognize potential long-term trends that have now been set in motion, e.g., further deregulation or that which proves inefficacious (as witness FDA and Interior Department policies), privatization, and weakening of the social safety net. In symbolic terms, the drone may well define the Obama presidency. One does not know whether Romney would closet himself with his advisors and personally authorize targeted assassination. Hopefully not, given that this barbaric act is the antithesis of due process and rule of law—a leap into moral vacuity that he would find difficult to match or surpass.
Finally, in the foreign policy arena, Obama, Republican distortions of the record notwithstanding, has been anything but a dove (aka, weak, soft, red), and instead he has been a robust commander-in-chief who surrounds himself with a highly aggressive national security team asserting a geopolitical agenda entirely establishment-oriented and, hence, consistent with the main outlines of previous administrations. Obama is no patsy. He enlarged the mission of the CIA to include operations, enjoys cordial relations with the intelligence community, has awakened to the imperial possibilities of naval power, has, through assistance to the nuclear power industry, moved forward a new generation of nuclear weapons, assisted paramilitary groups in Columbia in conducting death-squad operations against labor organizers and peasants whose land stands in the way of mineral companies, all this in addition to the larger picture, what is quaintly termed the “re-positioning” of American interest and military forces. The Cold War is being refurbished with what appears to be a new enemy—China. Obama’s Pacific-first strategy can only signify its attempted encirclement, accompanied by the strengthening of alliance systems including reportedly the pressure on Japan to rearm and to embark on the development of nuclear weapons. And securing favorable trade-and-investment outlets globally, as in the past, has not been neglected.
Like I believe Bartleby would hold, affirming silence becomes necessary when, as in the coming election, but also, the wider historical path being pursued, one regards as morally debasing not only a lesser-of-two-evils argument but what stands behind it: willing complicity in the political and cultural mechanisms used to promote exploitation and inequality, societal conditions rooted in hierarchical relations of power having direct economic consequences for every member of society. Inequality is a cancer. Its spread depends on false consciousness, its treatment and cure on self-knowledge and resistance to policies and practices in the name of, but intended to deceive, the people and deprive them of their rights. My hope is slight, however just perhaps to say “No” strikes a responsive chord, makes for a collective response, becomes socially popular, the sky may not fall in, but false consciousness would be if not sloughed off at least seriously weakened. And, in turn, the structure of power, in its brutality affecting human dignity, would be exposed for all to see—and ultimately oppose. The chance to project an authentic alternative vision, one no longer beholden to wealth accumulation and its correlates social misery and division, is worth taking. These are not propitious times for democracy; first must come an awareness of that in order to rekindle the hope in its realization.
Norman Pollack is a Harvard Ph.D. and 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.