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Ibsen Today: Wellsprings of a Poisoned Community

No, this is not about the Paris climate summit, although tangentially Barack Obama’s empty promises of a progressive legacy, because he is in fact wreaking damage on the Earth we love, the chief despoiler less on climate-related than on political-ideological-military matters (themselves the context for undermining the will to humanize/democratize a respect for Nature, which alone, said respect, can halt the greed, venomous assaultive mind-set) poisoning the wellsprings of earth and polity alike. Paris becomes a solemn farce of self-righteous grandstanding when the US is the chief purveyor of violence in the world, Obama the ideal personification of structural traits and social attitudes breeding wanton disregard for the humility and restraint, yes, the unashamed devotion toward all human dignity and environmental justness together defining a moral universe of societal peace, harmony, abundance. For Henrik Ibsen, Obama and America would have represented the perfect embodiment of a community and its leadership (because Obama is not alone, but only a spokesperson for wealth, power, and their combined militarization in a tightly molded historical construct of advanced capitalism informally directed by elites of these groups in a well-lubricated ruling class) held together by a dark secret, one they did not even admit to themselves, of war, intervention, the promiscuous use of everything from false-flag operations, to regime change, to saturation bombing to—the presumably genteel—economic embargoes, destructive of the lives and welfare of ordinary people, the children the ones who are most vulnerable to sickness and malnourishment, in sum, the dark secret of repressing from thought the self-hatred and nihilism leading to unfathomed aggression eating away at the vitals of the American conscience and consciousness.

Here political economy joins philosophy indicting the closed community found in Ibsen’s play, “An Enemy of the People,” (1882), which I am updating—without doing disservice to his work—to represent a more modern closure, militarized advanced capitalism (nowhere better noted than in present-day US): a structural-ideological integration in which we see a Nazified “folk-community” cemented together, and paralyzed to act otherwise, through its devotion to the leadership of wealth and power, translated as the reification of public opinion to disguise the hierarchical, class-dominated features of the social order. Admittedly, Ibsen did not follow through to the end the characterization of his hero, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, who, after having discovered that the Baths on which his town depended for its income and prestige had been poisoned by environmental pollution, and then mercilessly pilloried for his efforts to reveal the dirty little secret binding the community, stands up more as a Promethean demigod battling the masses (in subjective thrall to the elite), hence more an Ayn Randian figure, than, instead of condemning the people, a revolutionary defiantly challenging the social structure and the upper groups supporting it. But this, after all, is 1882, and Ibsen cannot see beyond the tyranny of public opinion, which he nonetheless ascribes—to his credit—to the power system itself, and, be it said, a capitalism in microcosm with all of the recognizable features of greed uppermost, class dominance, secretiveness (i.e., lack of transparency) in the operation of the Baths and the profitability to the shareholders, the intimidation from above in the subornation of the town’s newspaper, aptly called the “People’s Messenger,” indeed the silencing of all and sundry to validate the secret.

Ibsen knew his capitalism, despite the early dating, and furthermore, knew his liberalism, which he saw as base, opportunist, waiting for the opportunity to show its true colors, rallying to the side of Authority, even suggesting the corruption of the working class for a plebeian fascism by its complicity in keeping the secret and preventing Dr. Stockmann from being heard. The mob scene toward the end, when he is shouted down in public meeting, brings back vivid memories to me of having similar experiences when addressing antiwar rallies in Detroit in the late 1960s, thanks to CIA-sponsored Breakthrough. Stockmann may be pardoned, I believe, his supreme individualism, because of his selfless, really, sacrificial, actions, its elitism notwithstanding, in his refusal to be intimidated as, rather than being hounded out of the community, he stands his ground about the poisoning (despite efforts to buy him off) and seeks to educate the people, speaking on street-corners, to realize their humanity and overthrow the rotten administration (his own brother, Peter, is mayor, complete with the regalia of hat and stick, arch-protector of the Baths, and chief enforcer of the town’s conformity, as well as leader in turning the towns-people against his brother). Unrepentant, facing destitution and total ostracism himself and his family, fired from his position as medical officer of the Baths, his daughter Petra fired from her teaching post, thrown out of their house, window panes smashed the night he attempted to speak (after being denied a public venue), to all of these acts of suppression, the response of so-called public opinion, he now became LIBERATED and for the first time fully comprehended the horror of political-economic-social privilege. This, although Ibsen does not say it, is the start of Dr. Stockmann’s education as a radical, whether now, the journey from Ayn Rand to Karl Marx, doesn’t really matter, for he already has seen through the complicity of liberalism with totalitarianism, the fragile character of a free press anxious to placate upper groups and, in performing that service, manipulate and bamboozle the public, the rotten foundation on which business civilization rests.

If I may be permitted to interpolate thoughts on the present based on the play, capitalism has maintained its own secrets, layered as though gift-wrapped in sheets of tinsel so as to prevent the understanding of collective self-repression in order to keep up the democratic appearances of, particularly in America’s case, equality and freedom, as meanwhile we find that a pattern of global domination continues unabated, ditto the destruction of the environment, and poverty along with the shrinking of the social safety net and the ethos of public responsibility for the general welfare is under assault wherever capitalist “austerity” is practiced. The Baths of Ibsen symbolize the crudity of repression modern capitalism, in full-dress military uniform, practices on, not only the Third World, but the helpless, the victims, at home. Not only America, because America is the world leader of capitalism, and in exercising that leadership (e.g., the IMF under its guidance as really a civilian branch of Special Ops, dedicated to regime change) it fulfills the dream of all capitalist powers dating back to Ibsen’s own time: stabilization, order, subjugating the people to docile assent, the broadly conceived paradigm of counterrevolution which keeps the world as a two-tiered formation, call it North and South, it doesn’t matter, so long as global exploitation is free to continue. When Dr. Stockmann plants his feet solidly on the ground with the masses, which I sense was what he wanted, rather than standing on their heads, it will be a new ballgame, the working class itself shaking loose from capitalist ideological influence so as to combat all the poisoned Baths surrounding, and created by, us—a new ballgame of social decency and human respect. But not Dr. Stockmann, the individualist, the loner, but multiplied thousands-fold, arising from the people and acting in their name and, more important, on their behalf: on OUR behalf, each person, each tree, each river; for pollution, whether political or physical, poisons the wellsprings of life, history, the future.

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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