What is Wrong With America?

What is wrong with America?

Big question.

Simple answer.

We Americans have completely lost any sense of why a country, a society, and a government exist.

Politicians, lobbyists and corporate media talking heads, and far too many ordinary people, have accepted and are promoting as gospel the circular notion that it’s important to encourage business to grow so that people will be hired and the economy can grow.  This specious argument is used to justify the weakening labor unions, the raising of taxes on workers while they are cut for companies and the rich, the cutting of earned benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare, the gutting worker safety and environmental safety regulations, and the elimination of regulation of activities like banking, corporate mergers and takeovers, pharmaceutical companies etc. In fact every government action that results in making life harder or more dangerous for ordinary working people or for the poor is defended on the basis that it is necessary so that business can make more profit and help the economy to grow.

Growing the economy, however, is not, or certainly should not, be the reason we have government, the reason we are a country, or the reason we are a society.

The Declaration of Independence had it right when, in its inspiring preamble, it aroused a nation of rebels by espousing the inalienable rights of  “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Period.

And growth today poses a direct threat to all three of those stated goals.

Growth in all its aspects — economic growth, growth in profits, growth in sales, growth of population, growth in income – is a threat to life. It has become clear that the imperative of ever more growth, the ethos and driving force of modern corporate capitalism, is leading to the destruction of the very biosphere that sustains life on this planet. It is a threat to liberty, too, because one country’s growth — America’s — requires the constant assault on those weaker countries that threaten us. The globe is a finite place, and at this point, with seven
billion people crowded upon it, for one group — that is to say 313 million Americans — to prosper and grow, requires that 6.7 billion others give up something. In other words, for America to grow, it must be in a constant state of imperial domination and war, which also means a state of war at home, with all the concomitant restrictions on freedom, not to mention expropriation of revenue from the public (53 cents out of every tax dollar), that such a state inevitably entails.

For decades or longer even, there has been a carefully maintained American myth that the growth of global capitalism in general and of this country’s capitalist system in particular has been only beneficial to mankind, really with no downside. But that myth has been a lie. Capitalism in Europe grew at the expense of the colonies in Africa, Asia and Latin America that were exploited for their virtually free stolen resources and their cheap labor, as well as their captive markets. In the US, expansion into and theft of the Indian Territories and their resources as well as the free labor of a vast slave population until 1865 and continued exploitation of black and Latino workers since then allowed for dramatic economic growth, a small portion of which was shared with white workers for a time when they grew restive during the middle of the 20th century.

But because it is no longer possible for American capitalism to grow simply by exploiting other nations, while buying the passivity and acquiescence of the American masses at home by minimally allowing them to have some small part of the gains (the old trickle-down idea), economic growth now inevitably requires the impoverishment and progressive disempowerment of most Americans. Vastly more powerful corporate interests, having implanted the ideology of “growth is good,” are now demanding that we accept lower wages, less freedom and empowerment on the job, less safety, more environmental degradation, less health care, less quality education, less security in our old age. Our ability to pursue happiness, in other words, has also fallen victim to the unbridled pursuit of growth.

This is of course absurd. For tens of thousands of years human beings lived, built families, laughed, loved, created music and dance and art and found happiness in their lives. They did this with no growth, or at least with growth so slow that no one would have noticed it happening. It is only in the last perhaps few hundred years that growth has become an all-encompassing obsession of the rich and powerful — to be had at any cost. And happiness, liberty, and in the end life, are all being lost in that mad pursuit of ever more profit and wealth. In many countries these three values simply don’t exist. In the US we still have life, a little liberty, and some shot at happiness, but it’s all under grave threat.

Now the ideologues of growth will argue that mankind is much better of thanks to all that growth, but the truth is that of the world’s seven billion people, some two billion currently live in brutal, abject poverty. As Clive Hamilton, author of the book Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change, recently told journalist Chris Hedges, that number of immiserated people is greater than the entire population of the earth in 1900.

Some progress!

It’s hard to believe that hordes of Americans were mindlessly chanting “drill baby drill!” even as the oil from the leaking BP rig in the Gulf of Mexico was spewing into that vital body of water, that millions just voted for members of Congress who are committed to undermining Social Security and destroying it as a guarantor of a basic survival level of income for hundreds of millions of retirees, that Americans overwhelmingly voted for the re-election of a president who has for four years refused to do anything meaningful to stop the rampant production and release into the atmosphere of ever greater amounts of carbon dioxide, even to the point of pushing for more production of oil and expanded use of coal as a fuel. And yet sadly, most Americans have swallowed the propaganda that growth is a unquestionable good in and of itself, and that they must be willing to sacrifice their rights, their health and safety and their future security, not to mention in many cases their young sons and daughters, in pursuit of it.

This assault on these three crucial rights must be stopped. We Americans must wake up to the reality that growth in a finite world, far from being a good thing, inevitably means less life and liberty, and a very reduced opportunity to pursue happiness.

Dave Lindorff is a  founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He lives in Philadelphia.


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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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