By Martin Traphagen
As the American ruling class tries to reconstitute the proverbial Golden Age of capitalism from the wreckage of the postwar order, our country, and indeed the world is convulsing. Damascus, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in human history dies under the blows of mechanized warfare. The small but significant steps taken in the European Union towards parity between worker and capital is being undone by neoliberal technocrats and bankers, hell-bent on destroying any remaining channels of democratic engagement outside the grasp of private power. The corporate media, beholden to their advertisers for revenue and their government contacts for access, ensure that even educated citizens internalize the assumptions of state capitalism and American “exceptionalism”, and our educational system fails to instill the critical thinking skills necessary to navigate this ideological minefield and form a realistic picture of the world. Workers in Southeast Asia, the epicenter of the supply chains sustaining multinational capital, are subjugated to varying forms of authoritarianism for the convenience of the affluent Western consumer and his domestic overlords. Nuclear proliferation and climate change threaten our species’ very survival, and a cartoonish, unabashed plutocrat occupies the most powerful office in the world – before him an arsenal of weaponry (military, diplomatic, ideological) unseen ever before in history. If liberty is indeed the soul’s right to breathe, we are slowly but surely asphyxiating.
We anarchists and revolutionary socialists, all of us who want to challenge the prevailing social structure at its very core, have urgent work to do. It is no wonder the citizenry is in disarray. We are the most heavily propagandized and monitored people in history and the forces of nationalist dogmatism and indoctrination are so strong that the individual, in a highly atomized society with a growing gap between the extreme rich and poor, hardly has a chance. This is partly why we see such a widespread adherence to all kinds of ridiculous conspiracy theories; it is an attempt to explain institutional realities that seem ominous and esoteric, and a reflection of just how hopeless many people really are. It is up to us and those like us to lift the veil and dispel the mystery, and to remind each other that through solidarity and education we have the power to change our lives and the lives of working people everywhere.
The only way to challenge property relations and wage slavery in an internationalist paradigm is to first dissolve the artificial barriers of hostility that keep us afraid and resentful at home, and remember that as Bertrand Russell said, “..the world is a unity, and the man who pretends to live independently is a conscious or unconscious parasite.” In other words, unless U.S. workers act in solidarity with our comrades in the Global South, who toil under conditions infinitely worse than any American worker, we are simply doing exactly what the oligarchs and owners want us to do. When we believe the “free-market” fantasy that Chinese and Mexican workers are to blame for the deindustrialization of the American economy we play into a narrative that serves to further disenfranchise us all, and fuel the forces of xenophobic nativism already engulfing the working class.
The necessary illusions that come along with the American brand of imperial doublethink are getting harder for the people to swallow. American state capitalism has failed to live up to its postwar promise and provide meaningful opportunity and security for the great mass of people, and the conventional devices of pacification and control are no longer as effective. Formerly the bourgeoisie with its modest prosperity could be counted on as a bulwark against the rumblings of discontent latent in the masses ( the ‘great beast’ as Alexander Hamilton referred to us,) however today even doctors and professors are now facing much of the same uncertainty previously confined to the working poor. We are pitted against each other along racial and ethnic lines, while the three richest people in our country (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett) own as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the nation. We are indeed ‘only a pawn in their game’, as the great American poet Bob Dylan said. The symptoms of capitalisms failure as a mode of social organization are everywhere.
Yet it is unthinkable for most people that society could be organized along fundamentally different lines. They attribute their meager material circumstances and financial struggles to their own shortcomings or lack of initiative. The residual self-hatred oozing from the corpse of the American dream. I imagine this deeply ingrained servility comes about as a result of effective propaganda and the assumptions about property rights and relations innate in the American mythology. Most working class citizens feel blessed to have a day or two of repose and have grown to be content with mere subsistence. The notion that renting oneself to another person is an affront to human dignity, once widely held and understood as truism in this country, has been bludgeoned out of the workingman’s consciousness in the last hundred years of American history. A strong radical labor movement, vital to the education and empowerment of the citizenry, has been supplanted by the ‘business unionism’ of the contemporary AFL-CIO, whose sole aim is to match the business community’s monopoly of capital with their own monopoly of labor, effectively collaborating with class enemies who are intent on maintenance of the new serfdom. When looked at in an international context,
it becomes apparent just how divorced from reality our political discourse really is. The most radical proposals in the admissible spectrum of debate come from those who simply advocate America joining the rest of the industrialized world in providing a decent social safety net and basic healthcare, in accord with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other cornerstones of international humanitarian law.
The ideals of philosophical liberalism and the protection of the individual from the tyranny of the state have been destroyed by the monolith of industrial capitalism. Now completely unaccountable private power, growing unchecked in its ability to shape the experiences and choices of the citizen, is endowed with the same constitutional rights and protections of human beings. Early twentieth century court decisions started this process, culminated now in ‘free trade’ agreements and other perversions that furnish these totalitarian entities with the right to exploit and rob on a global scale. It is understandable how powerless the individual can feel, and it is reflected indirectly in the attitudes of those on the radical left as well. The pervasive disillusionment and disgust we see all throughout our nation is an opportunity to educate our fellow man on the true, comprehensible institutional sources of power, and dispel the mystery and bewilderment that all too often lead to compliance and passivity. Nurturing our bonds of revolutionary fraternity and affirmation is the only antidote to this lethargy and acquiescence, which means having the patience and understanding to listen deeply and dialogue with those who have been led astray and into all forms of hysteria, and build true understanding in the places where this delirium thrives. We must heed the words of Walt Whitman, who I feel compelled to quote at length, reflecting on American indolence after the secession war:
“I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the states are not honestly believ’d in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melo-dramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believ’d in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appalling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. The men believe not in the women, nor the women the men. A scornful superciliousness rules in literature. The aim of all the litterateurs is to find something to make fun of. A lot of churches, sects, &c., the most dismal phantasms I know, usurp the name of religion. Conversation is a mass of badinage. From deceit in the spirit, the mother of all false deeds, the offspring is already incalculable…….The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America, national, state, and municipal in all their branches and departments, except the judiciary are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administration; and the judiciary is tainted. The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism. In fashionable life, flippancy, tepid amours, weak infidelism, small aims, or no aims at all, only to kill time. In business (this all-devouring modern word, business,) the one sole object is, by any means, pecuniary gain. The magicians’ serpent in the fable ate up all the other serpents; and money making is our magician’s serpent, remaining to-day the sole master of the field.”