Civics 1.1: Structures of Feeling

Photograph Source: Photo by Dan Dennis

War rages, horrid war
Even in our bones; our double nature sounds
With armèd discord.

– Prudentius, Psychomachia

“The cultural critic Raymond Williams. He had this idea of how every era has what he called a structure of feeling, which is basically the way that people experience the times in which they live.”

– David Marchese, interview with Don DeLillo, The New York Times Magazine, Oct. 11, 2020

“Embrace the Chaos. Our movement is embracing the chaos.”

– John Fredericks response to Republican Party’s embrace of chaos as they elect — or try to — their Speaker of the House. Kevin McCarthy finally was elected after three days of voting. But did he bend to a “structure of feeling” that is foreign except on a fugacious fringe to both the way feelings are structured by Liberal/Blue and Conservative/Red states. And if so, isn’t this embrace of chaos fringe therefore rootless and vaporizing?

Republicans have since Reagan marched in step behind Market Rule which after all is a Rule and not chaos. More accurately it demands an order of business in which debts are paid, interests protected as an order of law as well as conscience, and capital trickles down to the wage earner. The whole hocus pocus must be treated with an air of fair and just distribution. It’s all in Econ 101.

But of course, the play of the market is itself stochastic. It has no order. So, you could say chaos is on the scene in a way. A very big way.

This is a psychiatric line I won’t pursue, namely, that a political party led by an economic theory that substitutes market play for legislative plan becomes eventually increasingly dark, screw loose and chaos driven. True, a few have made a lot of money along the way and that money keeps compounding on the road to really obscene wealth. Wealth and attendant power keep The Rule in place.

Both the Republican and Democratic parties have been struggling to represent what I call an American psychomachia, “a battle between virtues and vices for the soul of Man.” The effort of politics to represent such is messy, comical, and tragic, a kind of flat rate packaging in which what doesn’t fit is tossed. On the Dem’s side, it’s clear that the structure of feeling that leads to some variety of socialism can’t be packaged. An open anti-capitalist platform is a platform too far. On the Repub side, there’s an existential threat to its existence now because an organizing principle of Market Rule has led to a plutocratic order increasingly difficult to endorse. A 20%/80% split with prosperity compounded by the former via investments and a compounding of salaried, insecure jobs by the latter is not a scenario promising Repub electoral victories.

Enter Donald J. Trump. What we have is a meeting of a roulette system of indiscriminate reward and a human excretory product of that system who becomes the savior of those who have the wealth of wages standing beside those who have the wealth of inheritance, dividends, and ownership of labor. The entire drama is cockamamy and the chaos loving dramatis personae are out of their minds. Those who remain fired up by Trump have only that structure he provided, those feelings he provided. They are so tied to his megalomania that beyond a rage to chaos there is no transmittable structure. Without outside fueling, that rage will burn out.

Those, however, who experience the world within a structure of feeling that precedes Trump persist. Their feelings have been festering since Reagan line-item vetoed wage earner life and arranged a mobility of wealth to more and more wealth. All Repubs have to do is hold on to those feelings and somehow detour them into Market Rule. In short, they have to adapt to a populist outrage they don’t viscerally comprehend, excise the Trump tumor on the elegance of Market Efficiency, and excise the chaos created by nutjobs in their own ranks elected to office.

Dems, for their part, have provided Trump with life support. Former President Trump’s own longevity is Dem’s dependent because they feed the anger of those who don’t feel or experience our era as they do. They feed anger by assuming positions presented as absolute and universally acknowledged when in fact they are moot. Basic and essential rights for all as sponsored by Dems, personal choice supremacy and a self-empowerment authorizing such, and the path to freedom through diversity as a unifying path are political goals set in a political arena. They are neither basic nor essential unless we ourselves give them such imprimatur. And our “saying” is open to review.

I point out that the Dems’ declaration of basic rights is not universally held, that personal choice belies the worldly context of choice as well as the socially constructed nature of subjectivity, and that diversity is not a creator of unity but an introduction of possibly irreconcilable difference.

My point is not that Dem’s ruling dicta are unworthy but like all structures of feeling, they can be challenged. They do not stand on grounds of absolutes universally held but rather on a privileged structure of feeling. This means politics is played on a bottomless chess board with no player authorized to declare trump, to mix chess and pinochle metaphors. That Mr. Trump has declared himself the trump card in the game is not metaphorically but sadly real.

Regardless of how strongly any of us claim the truth of our dicta they nevertheless rest on structures of feeling derived from experiences in motion within the movement of time and place. No solemnity of imprimatur or appeal to celestial authorization obviates the shaky grounds on which our politics rests. If we defer to Natural Law theory, we run up against the conjecture of necessary and natural moral restraint which takes us back to an absolute. Once again that absolute is posited by us, and we do so from within our structures of feeling. Back to shaky grounds. The bottomless chessboard.

Laying claim to a high ground of rights and personal choice not to be questioned is imperial, not democratic, although we may link them to our founding documents. But neither the rights of independence declared in the Declaration of Independence as insured by the “Powers of the Earth,” the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” compelled acceptance by England, for instance. Luther asserted he had divinity backing his, but it didn’t compel a Church divinely backed in opposition. It seems the divine could play both sides.

Although the Declaration did not set the laws or establish our government, what “We, the People” ordain in the Constitution assumes the validity of the litany of self-evident Truths, declared in the Declaration. None of these are self-evident. If the Creator endowed us “with certain inalienable Rights” neither that bequest appears in the Bible, nor are “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” there either. Appealing to Nature as a foundational source for our rights, whether the natural world or our own human nature, is prima facie a shaky appeal. However, the dissenting and rebelling ways in which the Founding Fathers experienced their era, and both created and responded to a structure of feeling that represented those experiences did ground our Constitutional order.

The present push for a new Constitutional Convention is premised on a denial of the inalienable Rights of the Declaration as well as an 18th century ordaining and establishing of documents that nowhere mention Market Rule or replaces the English monarch with le ROI, return on investment. Need it be said that promoting the general Welfare smacks of the New Deal, the Repub nemesis. In short, we now live in “any authority is denied” era, not even Constitutional authority has credible legs. So much “fake news.”

It’s not surprising that an angry dissent to the Dems expansion of rights, always deemed basic, has been commandeered by the Repub avatar, Trump. He delivered votes they could not themselves garner. In the aftermath of the 2022 Congressional elections, Trump is clearly not a manageable avatar but rather a real threat to any Republican success at the polls. It would not be cynical to suggest that Repubs are working as hard to remove him from any influence as are the Dems.

Trump was at one time a happy gift to Repubs whose own ruling dicta of Market Rule is parasitic on structures of feeling, attaching itself now to a structure of feeling angrily reacting to the Dems. Book titles such as The Party of Death, If Democrats Had Any Brains, It’s Time to Fight Dirty, Guilty By Reason of Insanity indicate that there is a fertile field of anger to exploit.

In itself there is no structure of feeling to Market Rule which can be sold to those who don’t speak money or have money. Maximization of profit to shareholders is not a salve to those who are not shareholders. Profit not People is not a People rallying cry. “Greed is good, greed works” Gordon Gekko tells us in Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street but in fact it’s people who work and greed that lives on the productions of those people. The chessboard here does have a bottom and that bottom line is always profit, whether its education, pharmaceuticals, warfare, health care, ecosystems, food, shelter, air, water.

Profit making has no relationship with or commitment to evolving human experiences and the feelings resulting. Thusly, it limits itself to a defense against what threatens or could conceivably threaten profit making. In an anti-capitalist posture, the Dems are such a danger, but the Dems themselves keep such a posture in check. Perhaps this is because they are heavily invested in our chosen economics, or also because, as Clinton believed, globalized capitalism could not be attacked but only leaned into.

Unfortunately, there is not enough Dems recognizing, as Einstein wrote in his 1949 article “Why Socialism” that the “profit motive, in conjunction with competition among capitalists, is responsible for an instability in the accumulation and utilization of capital which leads to increasingly severe depressions. Unlimited competition leads to a huge waste of labor, and to that crippling of the social consciousness of individual.” More drastically, there is not enough financial and societal support to establish a viable third party in the U.S. which would not lean into our crippling economic system. The necessary structure of feeling based on experience that would respond to socialism as suitable for our era does not yet exist.

Nurturing feelings that keep any anti-capitalist threat in check, including “radical socialists” among Dems, is almost the whole of Republican Market politics. The invisible hand of the Market, Repubs insist, doesn’t need intrusive legislation. It needs to be left alone by government. Free thinking, liberty seeking Americans share that view and thus for Repubs feelings so structured are a point of entry into lives they care nothing about and for which they will do nothing.

An assumed high ground structure of feelings underlies and triggers the Dems’ platform of principles, thus explaining why it fails to deconstruct the “essentialism” of its principles, for instance what the present Supreme Court is doing regarding Basic Rights. What prevails on the Dem side is a diagnosis of those who do not share its bottomless high ground structure. The Dem talk then is of those who are adrift in dysphoria, disaffection, immiseration, conspiracies, addictions, especially to the irrational. These are all conditions in which an intervention is required, an intervention made by those on a high ground of feelings assumed by those who propound a rational moralism to their own feelings.

An entire structure of feelings antithetical to the high ground structure is not unobserved but rather deplored. They nevertheless exist, such as feelings in which God’s will is held to be superior to personal choice sovereignty, feelings of indifference at the very least to what is different, or, foreign to one’s own habits of heart and mind. We cannot ignore an angry antipathy to the politics of imposed diversity, the level of diversity and tolerance being calculated via personal decision, not mandate. There is in our society a structure of feeling in which who and what is on the margin is positioned there purposefully so a center will hold and not dissolve into chaos. Or the marginalized are seen to be choosing their own marginalization.

Such feelings feed the anger of the Dems as totally as the Dems feed the anger of those who Trump gathered to himself. To repeat: he never represented the whole of a “structure of feeling” demographic but only those on an explosive burn, a fit of rage they felt was condoned biblically but was actually set off by a huckster. None of that delegitimatized the reality of that structure of feeling, as abhorrent as it has been from a High Ground view.

A Market Rule, which has not attachments to human life-worlds or the planet beyond exploiting all in the name of profit, has no structure of feeling but plays the two we do have toward its own end, one promising much to some, and nothing to many.

For example, profits can and have been made without demanding basic and intrinsic rights for the consumer/exploited. Workers have equal rights except during the one third of their lifetime they are “on the job.” Personal choice is no more than choices manufactured and branded not only outside personal choice but destructive of it. Diversity and immigration are “whatever” issues to Market Rule unless it means cheap labor. Repubs assume a non- interfering, “Get back to where you want to be,” “We don’t pretend to be your elite life monitors good fellowship.” All this masks the plutocratizing effects of their economics which is closer to a “Leave us alone, get Big Government off our backs” negative freedom structure born of the frontier spirit, than the morality legislating Dems.

Dems are on a humanitarian mission to elevate the oppressed as well as their oppressors. This mission elevates the missionaries themselves, who are as assuredly living on the winnings of investment as are Repubs. While Market Rule Repubs are not there to help anyone but themselves, they offer what privilege the predation of our economics offers them as accomplishment to be emulated. They align the structure of their own acquisitive feeling with the “Everyday American” who wants to be rich, who doesn’t want to replace that hope with a dream of economic equality wherein no one is rich.

Dems bow and bend to the existence of “an enlightened self-interest.” This is no more than a delusion, a leaning into competitiveness propelled by greed. It’s also a wise recognition that the Golden Rule, written across all religions, that the interests of others are equal to your own self-interest is not a powerful structured feeling in the U.S. Dems will do an after-competition distribution triage on every public stage, careful to step around any anti-capitalist position, or erase those Dems who take such a position.

The troubled liberal conscience seeks relief in charitable and philanthropic ways, rising up against gun violence, extinction of the lower orders, denied rights to the latest marginalized to attract their attention, police shootings of Blacks, treatment of immigrants at the borders, assertions of biology over choice, and every issue but the predations of an economic system, the bogus Wizard behind a curtain, they won’t expose. As worthy as all such concerns are they present as do the symptoms of an underlying disease. Treat the disease and many of its symptoms will disappear.

None of what Dems offer goes down well to those whose life-worlds are of a different making. So much of what Dems offer smacks of gentrifying invasion, dilettante priorities on the new global gastro tourism level, and an insistence on minority claims totally foreign to the Red States. So much of it is casually secular when those of religious faith are not casually religious. Dems join with Repubs in believing that you’re sad if you don’t have a stock portfolio, don’t know the majesty of dividends and compound interest, don’t realize, to quote Gordon Gekko again, you’re nothing if you don’t have ten million.

Repubs have a Siri and Alexa robot assistant “Uh huh, uh huh” response to a structure of feeling Dems want to elevate to woke levels, which goes beyond racist awareness to a kind of reconstruction of all social levels not urban, secular, professionalized, tech savvy, non-hunting, NASCAR oblivious, gentrifying upper middle class. On this level of emotional and experiential response, tied to conditions relative and positional and not universal, anyone’s god is gone, your personal choices trump biology, who has a womb and can give birth is debatable, heterosexuality is “old school,” being trans is cooler than being cis, and podcast Influencers expand the world’s knowledge and creativity. Some and more of this Dems have jumped on while Repubs have for the most part sat out and let the Dems feel the rage.

It doesn’t help that reasoning beyond our experiencing requires an authority that is unfaithful. I mean our reasoning faculty. It can be easily made to work both sides of the street. Thus, our foundations are shaky to say the least, but their absence and the infidelity of reason have never been able to keep us from experiencing changing times within structures of feeling we ourselves live within.

Though structured in individual life-worlds and as now within two opposing cultural life-worlds, structures of feelings we now find ourselves within are mercurial and blow in the wind as the times inevitably change and so to do our experiences. Political parties must adapt to those changes or go the way of the Whigs. Habits of heart and mind hold longer in cultures not driven by a Prime Directive of rapidly accelerating economic growth and the accompanying delusion that such defines all notions of progress. Now we are rushed on by IT as it rushes toward an AI/Robotics whose effect on human life-worlds is unknown. No one seriously sees human choice at work here.

So, we may not be transitioning to other structures of feeling as we should expect in speaking about feelings but rather to another plane entirely; the experiencing of the world in which we live in ways that have nothing to do with feeling. A robotic salvation of humanity? For some this may mean an answer to our divided ways as we avert our fractious feelings, and we all come together within the neural networks of AI’s “greatest thoughts and minds of humankind.” Non-fractious legislation via algorithm.

Perhaps however we will remain within our life-worlds of feeling and experiencing but have them altered dramatically as the life-world of our planet, indifferent to the advances of the neural networks of AI, erupts in one life threatening catastrophe after another due to our persistent unintelligent intrusions in our planet’s natural rhythms. The structures of our feelings laid to rest.


Joseph Phillip Natoli’s The New Utrecht Avenue novel trilogy is on sale at Amazon. Time is the Fire ended what began with Get Ready to Run and Between Dog & Wolf. Humour noire with counterpunches. .