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America’s Decline: Internal Structural-Cultural Subversion

Seventy years of identifying enemies has taken its toll. Following World War II to the present, America exhibits the psychopathology of anticommunism, that enemies are everywhere besieging the Fortress of Democracy, when the real Enemy is internal, gnawing at, eroding, democratic foundations themselves a problematic basis for authentic freedom because historically aligned from the beginning with capitalism. Through the New Deal period, there may still have been hope that capitalism could be democratized, a future not yet closed down to the popular representation of an active citizenry open to ideas of business regulation, a vibrant social safety net conceived as the human right attached to the individual per se, and a foreign policy dedicated to peace, non-millenarian or hubristic in scope and orientation, rejecting Exceptionalism as the ideology of unrestrained ambition and conquest. A different America in every respect from the one we know today, a living hell we’ve created whose image we have then projected onto others, primarily the Russians and Chinese, but in fact any social movement seeking autonomy and social justice for their nation outside the influence and reach of American dominance.

This is not to say American historical development during the three centuries from John Winthrop to the advent of FDR was sweet innocence incarnate. America was always capitalistic, a fragment of Europe absent its premodern institutional base of feudalism (even American slavery was business-oriented first and foremost, the dripping magnolia hiding the dark secret, except to master and slave alike, of profit in the international market). The decks were cleared for expansion: for honing a capitalistic entity which demanded ideological absolutism; a compliant, degraded labor force, agricultural and then industrial; a polity riddled with division, both racial and class, to prevent common awareness of exploitation and the solidarity needed to oppose it. Yet the indivisibility or interchangeability of capitalism and America was bound to be shaken up, less by reform (always within acceptable ideological bounds) than by the social protest of working people and their, along with depressed minorities, whether native blacks or recent immigrants, wider yearnings for a decent life beyond sharecropping and the factory whistle.

Oppression, seemingly permanent and limitless, can last only so long before a thirst for dignity and well-being reveals underlying structure for its atavistic, anachronistic, and for Marx, contradictory, character and record. Apologists for capitalism among American academics and the intelligentsia, the one-way ticket to fame and fortune, have distorted that character and record so as to read “consensus” seeping from every pore of the body politic. Not so! From slave revolts to industrial strikes, the dispossessed in America have fought back, largely however, only to be crushed as permissible alternatives to historical development have been structurally and culturally narrowed. Call it false consciousness or brainwashed but the spectrum for the articulation of oppositional ideas, and the protest to be derived therefrom, has become shrunken through time (aka, repression, soft and hard) to the point that the more militancy is expressed the more self-delusional because avoiding confrontation with capitalism itself. Possessing systemic awareness if still possible is becoming decayed, protest becoming fragmented, as militarism and monopolism, cemented together in defining the future, take hold in a framework of closure.

Too pessimistic a forecast? Let’s briefly consult Marx, who had a visionary clarity when it came to the rock-bottom element of capitalism. I refer not to revolution as the offspring of repression, reification as the status of reigning concepts within capitalism, but the simple primordial systemic core: commodity structure and its political-social as well as epistemological function. The significance of the commodity in Marx’s analysis was first brought to my attention by Fritz Pappenheim, whom I was privileged to know and learn from in the latter 1950s in Cambridge, Mass. Pappenheim fled from Germany, was interned in a Spanish concentration camp, and through the intercession of Paul Tillich came to America, publishing The Alienation of Modern Man (Monthly Review Press, 1959) based on Marx’s Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, and hence the commodity-structure of capitalism. Most people know Marx from the Manifesto or Das Capital, yet, for me, the Manuscripts represents the seminal, explosive value of his writings, the critique of capitalism at its most fundamental level. Some examples suffice to indicate the power of capitalism to shape social relationships resulting in the political internalization of a mindset which enforces separation and alienation, treats the self and others as commodities, mere objects to be bought and sold, in sum, the objectification of human consciousness in defense of capitalism’s essence, exchange values as the cornerstone of social organization and individual identity. Humankind is thus a form of property, those within society relating to each other as, and through the institutional nexus of, property wherein we are all buyers and sellers (what’s in it for me?) giving only a small part of ourselves to others as though inhabiting a transactional framework of profit and loss.

Marx has said it far better than I, appropriately starting with the worker qua commodity, a factor of production, in the process depersonalized as an extension of the machine with no more personal worth to ownership, even less, than the machine. Marx before/different from Freud has the psychodynamics of dehumanization at the base of civilization, or in this case capitalism. It is this pathology of the human condition, an epistemology of narcotized servitude governed by the structural principles of exchange-value, that I think has greater importance than the revelation of exploitation to be Marx’s contribution to the critique of capitalism. Revolution, well and good, but what if one mode of production is simply replaced by another, the factor of alienation not directly addressed? Socialized production will lessen inequalities, to be sure, but Marx is after bigger game, psychological as well as economic and physical emancipation, a valuing of human worth truly human, not dependent on the sacrifice of the faculties and emotional life of the individual for presumably higher ends, notably, profits, systems of authority, social differentiation founded on property and wealth.

Let’s look, then, briefly at the section “Estranged Labor,” Die Entfremdete Arbeit, in which he writes: “The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and range. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. With the increasing value of the world of things proceeds in direct proportion the devaluation of the world of men. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity —and does so in the proportion in which it produces commodities generally.” And he adds, in a familiar passage: “This fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces—labor’s product—confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been congealed in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification.” This realization under capitalism “appears as loss of reality for the workers,” a form of “object-bondage” in which we have become our commodities. This applies not only to the assembly line but to all of us, that epistemological matrix, what I might call, the materialization of the self, and for Marx, alienation.

The critique of capitalism is unanswerable, for riches impoverish society and individual alike, not only in class terms, but impoverishment of mind and spirit, where there is little intrinsic meaning, intelligence is translated as besting others, and for those reduced in circumstances, a dedication to their own negation through identification with the false dreams enticing them to conformity in an alien existence. This is perhaps not the locus, for Marx, of false consciousness, but one can see here, the worker as prototypical of everyone, the makings of mental regimentation as necessary to commodity fetishism and submission to the structural workings of capitalism. The autonomous individual is not wanted. For who in her right mind wills herself a slave to consumerism, or worse, who identifies herself with the glories of war and subjugation of others? Marx states: “The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object.” (We are our cars, our bank accounts, everything but ourselves.) He continues: “The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him; it means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.” I invite the reader who has not done so, to probe deeper into this critique. I would only add, man as a species-being must not treat himself or others as a means to life rather than life itself, for the individual, “a universal and therefore a free being.”

My departure point was what appears as the necessity of identifying enemies both as a way of fending off self-criticism and of projecting onto others the fallacies, psychodynamics, and hatreds we share in our pursuit of global hegemony. Hence, the perpetual Cold War justifying large arms budgets, mutual security pacts for counterrevolutionary purposes and also masking American unilateralism in the world, and not least, marshalling support for war, intervention, the imposition of patriotic ritual at home. Only when one takes account of our self-manufactured fears, a Commie under every bush, Russian missiles descending from the heavens, China swallowing Asia with the US next, does it become evident America is in a state of decline, the national mood that of wanting to have a certitude of moral supremacy over all others which nevertheless, deep-down, is recognized to be beyond our reach. Foreign policy would supposedly arrest the decline, which in the first place can never be admitted, making the militarization of capitalism the more imperative, stripping away any pretense, except to Americans themselves, of a democratic society devoted to peace and social justice.

More articles by:

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 pollackn@msu.edu.

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