The Politics of Cultural Despair: America’s Self-Immolation

America offers itself in sacrifice, a sacrificial victim to its hunger for, not just capitalism, although its centuries of ideological brainwashing has rendered capitalism per se infused with societal purpose, but capitalist hegemony, the exercise of preponderant influence and power, the top rung of the ladder, in unilaterally shaping the global structure to its military-financial-commercial advantage. Ain’t gonna happen; can’t happen; maybe in the aftermath of World War II, when the rest of the world was exhausted, prostrated, but not now, in an infinitely more complex international system organized around discrete major power blocs capable of recognizing their respective self-interests and acting accordingly. China is not afraid of the US, nor is Russia, nor, increasingly, is the EU, and that just for starters. This is a rude awakening for America, and given its national beliefs, the moral certitude of its own exceptionalism, its faith in militaristic responses to perceived trouble, its feigned reliance on God to see it through the foibles of wealth concentration and foreign adventurism, such a fate of political-structural decline will not be taken lightly, that is, not without a fight before it sinks down into the abyss of everyday equality with other nations—a horrible nightmare to the arrogant, the spoiled, the conquering heroes of American political and economic leadership.

A straw in the wind: the reengineering of nuclear weaponry to emphasize tactical weapons and thus make nuclear war itself thinkable. Another straw in the wind: the long lines to buy tickets for the Powerball drawings, a futile act of desperation in search of wealth, the get-rich schemes gnawing into the national mindset. Actually, they have in common what I term Thanatosean America, in Freud, an instinctual desire for death, but without its counterweight, an affirmation of the forces of life. How can there be life, when America has constructed an enormous death machine draining all before it and leaving an empty husk in the civil space with unemployment, a crumbling infrastructure, xenophobic mouthings, extensive poverty (coupled with all-time wealth concentration, billionaires roaming the political landscape) to fill in the vacuum. Life? Obama’s pet project is drone assassination. And that is window dressing for the underlying systemic dynamics which have reduced the individual to an obedient cipher, the logical end of transforming him/her into a commodity, capitalism’s depersonalization of the human being.

We have just witnessed the State of the Union address, Obama’s plea for civility in politics, yet he paints too dour a picture in one critical respect: civility abounds in American politics when it comes to the important things. Civility, as bipartisan consensus, over war, intervention, regime change (even Bernie on the Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse); civility, over the warrant for commercial-financial expansion, disguised as America’s destiny (exceptionalism); civility, over one-sided trade partnerships; civility, over environmental degradation; civility, over humongous military budgets (here Bernie may be potentially breaking away); thus, civility where it counts, the widespread acceptance in politics, economics, and culture of a United States clinging to life-support, so that its puristic capitalism can remain unblemished, a conception of capitalism as fitting for the late 19th century (with its Darwinian rationales for wealth and race inequality, and for the building of gigantic holdings in industry and finance) as for the present day, accelerating these trends to a point where America stands alone and supreme as the custodian of unearned wealth and repository of fear, as though associated through an implicit assumption that the gig is up: no further forcible remaking of the world in its image.

Where civility does not hold lies in the race to see who can better serve wealth, strengthen the military, and manipulate—if such is needed—the individual to blind submission to these ends. Here the Democrats are giving the Republicans a race for their money, now the loyal opposition in proving their 100% Americanism, a Trump-Clinton contest requiring an electron microscope to spot the differences. The fascistic garbage being spouted on the Republican side, animating the spirit of the militia movements and gun-toting public, is ineffectually opposed by the other side, and on foreign policy Sanders has yet to distinguish himself from Clinton or Republicans. Politics is a unique barometer of the national mind and spirit; for America, the bravado of the rhetoric suggests a stridency of running scared to hide an awareness of declining fortunes, a political economy bereft of performance serving the general welfare, a military establishment gone cockamamie (under civilian-leadership instigation) in its quest for power and absolutist national security, a docile citizenry unmindful of the totalitarian implications of massive NSA surveillance … but hold on, you may have a winning Powerball ticket, and so everything is okay. Dream on, as alienation crumbles a democratic social order.

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