As Stanley Aronowitz said in his short history of radicalism in contemporary America the failure of the Left hasn’t been due to repression, capitalist propaganda, business ‘s control over the means of information, or the internecine wars to which American radical organizations have become habituated (even if much of that is partially valid), it has been the credo and success of the spirit of capitalism itself. American’s bought into the liberal humanist vision of John Locke long ago, the rugged individualism and fear of collectivities of any type. Any sign of socialism and most of the populace runs for the hills.1 Capitalism keeps churning along without causing the proles to get too anxious so that they’ll continue to be enamored by the techno-gadgets, political lies, and promises of a good retirement packages in their portfolios. For some capitalism offers the only game in town, for others it is the game that excludes them automatically. The insiders turn a blind eye to the outsiders, while the surveillance cameras and profiling systems keep the bomb squads at bay, and the favelas spinning with nightly drone raids and gang busting armored tanks roaming the buffer zones of this dense hell. Yes, America is the home of obsolescence by design. Someday they may even replace the Presidency with a talking head, an AI that can operate the military drone arsenal with a flick of the digital Zero.
Even during New Deal Era when Roosevelt hoped to create a nationwide back-to-the-land movement, which he believed would encourage a simpler life, a more communal and caring world of cooperation, he discovered just how far off he was in his thinking. He created the Civilian Conservation Corps, launched in 1933, had half a million young Americans enrolled by 1935, planting trees and carrying out soil reclamation projects. The Tennessee Valley Authority, also started in 1933, built dams and undertook programs for soil conservation and reforestation. Arthur Morgan, the TVA’s first director, believed that work of this nature would generate a community ethic capable of displacing laissez-faire capitalism, and a “spirit of cooperation” that would overshadow the “aberration” of rugged individualism. Under his tutelage, for example, the TVA organized handicrafts industries and other cooperatives. Following the likes of William Morris he tried to implement an American form of socialism.
What happened? As Morris Berman tells us very little of this withstood the test of time. Rugged individualism is no “aberration” in the United States; rather, the “spirit of cooperation” is. Morgan, in short, was as out of touch with the mainstream American ethos as Lewis Mumford was. Morgan’s own project for a garden city, Norris, Tennessee, which was designed for TVA employees, was to exemplify the ideology of public good over private interest. But it didn’t take long for the residents of Norris to reject this notion, to label it “socialism,” and thus to recoil from it. In addition, other New Dealers didn’t share Morgan’s vision; they saw the TVA strictly in economic terms, not as a vehicle for the ethical redirection of American life. FDR finally fired Morgan in 1938.2
Even when we study such utopian communal experiments from the early Shaker movement, George Rapp’s Harmony Society, Robert Owen’s New Harmony, Brook Farm and the Fourierist Phalanxes, Oneida communities, Icarian communities, Bishop Hill, and so many hundreds of others in the long history of the United States we discern a sense of anxiety and restlessness, a sense of failure due to the lack of participation and cooperation, a sense of community lacking in these endeavors that would bring them all to either disband or radically modify their original utopian notions. As Pitzer comments, “the communal impulse seems encoded in the genetic makeup of nearly all life-forms. The much-celebrated, much-vilified “American individualism,” while it no doubt offers one key to understanding the national character, has always been balanced by a powerful affiliative drive drawing men and women into religious congregations, fraternal lodges, ethnic organizations, sports clubs, reform groups, mutual-improvement juntas, professional societies, civic associations— and communal ventures.”3 Many of these communal experiments were based in the age old forms of religious and political dissent which have been the bedrock of American society and culture from its beginnings. There has been a tension between what I’ll term seekers of gold and conquest, expansion and growth vs. those who sought to escape and exit the repressive structures of command and control they’d lived and died under in Europe, hoping to create a new harmonious world carved out of the wilderness.
(I’ll admit that I am not addressing the indigenous populations of Amerindians or Native Americans, something that is lacking in most of these discussions. Something I’ll need to re-address in future posts.)
Remnants of many of these experiments remain in both archaeological and textual forms, but very few actually survived. Lewis Mumford studied these utopian societies, and even believed such a world possible until late in life when in The Condition of Man (1944), which was partly influenced by his study of the late Roman Empire, he observed, that its rulers during this period refused to believe that the empire was falling apart. It was precisely the unwillingness of the Roman people to look at their way of life, one founded on “pillage and pilfer,” and to revamp it, that led to the fall of Rome. (Berman, KL 621) As Mumford saw it the U.S.A. was like Rome beginning down a path of militaristic and economic imperialism that very few wanted to admit to themselves, and fewer still would reflect on so that like Rome America was slowly eroding its value systems and original radicalism in dissent. All this would he believed lead to the eventual demise of democracy and the American way of life in the 21st Century.
After the fall of Russian and Chinese communism the Left has as of yet discovered a way forward, but has instead fallen into beleaguered in-fighting, accusatory bickering, and fragmented thought. As one who once affiliated himself with the radical Left I’ve come to see it’s political, social, and economic systems as bankrupt and in need of burial rather than rebirth. The only thing of value is the original critiques which in our age of financial capitalism are in desperate need of new ideas and praxis. Thousands upon thousands of books, articles, academic journals, lectures, etc. continue to flood the networks of our world, each offering a supposed diagnosis and critique. And, yet, the world remains under the power of global capitalism which has no infiltrated the old communist regimes even if in deformational decomposition and composition. Many keep asking if there is an alternative to capitalism? But I wonder if that is even the right question? Shouldn’t we actually be asking if people can form communal structures of cooperation and sharing, or will be forever bound to the old Lockean and liberal Subject of the failing democratic ethos?
Over the past forty years with the influx of Foucault and the Anti-humanists the academic world of the Americas has been shaped by a distrust in the democratic and liberal forms of subjectification. The neruosciences and philosophy have agreed that the Subject – the age old essence of the human condition, the Self, does not exist. That the last vestiges of our metaphysical heritage and Christian belief systems is under attack, that humanism is no longer viable. So that the whole political tradition that stemmed form the Enlightenment and its foundation in secular demythologization of religious consciousness, as well as it myth of Reason as instrumental and objective. The Sciences bedrock belief that we could ultimately discover reality and describe it, uncover its last secrets. All this has fallen away and a new picture of the universe and humanity is arising out of the ruins of humanist thought and metaphysics. There will be no end to it, our unknowing. The universe is not a whole to be contemplated, but an incomplete movement that is continuously simulating its infinite series of material metamorphosis. To stabilize it, to objectify it, to fix it or peg it down is to destroy it. Instead allow it to change you, rather than you changing it.
At the core of this is a battle between two views of the unknown and unknowable: those who affirm that humanity is driven by lack, negativity, and an oscillating dialecticism of memory and perception; and, those who believe that humanity is lacking nothing, that it is fully productive and bound to an energetic and unconscious power of intelligence that remains illusive and beyond our knowledge systems to decipher or control. Between these two views their are shades and variations galore, cleverly disguised programs that harbor certain illusions from both views of life and humanity. No one has of yet brought the needed conceptuality or diagrammatic thinking needed to enframe this new vision of reality and the – shall we term it, neohuman, posthuman, non-human, inhuman? We seem to drift among several paths with no guide to put our mind’s to rest, rather we seem to be in the midst of a transitional phase that is aligning both our minds and our lives in-between. In a conjuncture and event driven moment between times that disallows clarity and the crystallizing force of thought, concept, and feeling to merge and produce a definitive relation to the new. All we know is that we are entering the real movement of the world. Where it will lead no one knows. The experiment has begun… you have no you (Self) to defend. There is no you there. Let go… ride the shockwave!
- Aronowitz, Stanley. The Death and Rebirth of American Radicalism. Routledge (September 13, 2013)
- Berman, Morris. Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline (Kindle Locations 649-654). John Wiley and Sons. Kindle Edition.
- Pitzer, Donald E. America’s Communal Utopias (p. xi). The University of North Carolina Press; 1st New edition edition (January 20, 2010)