Crossposted at DKOS after a long delay. Some really good comments over there!
Gradually, we have stopped really looking at the horror. Not that it is all horror. Life itself is sweet. It is that sudden gust of summer wind that carries honeysuckle and a mixture of green-tinted scents. This is life, so full and opulent. This great Goddess that nurtures us without stint, without regret, without reproach. She accepts us just as we are and always will no matter what we do. She will cry in a dark corner but blame no one. Crying and hurt is part of the nature of fecundity.
But what of us? Actually we don’t give a shit. Not really. We are able to live in a very artificial world very far away from our Great Mother who cools her heels beneath the window of our daydreams. Daydreams and fantasies dominate our world-we want fantasies to be real. It seems that we want to shape the world and other people to fit our fantasies.
Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.
Tony Judt wrote the above in the first paragraphs of an article he wrote in the New York Review of Books. In a way he is stating the obvious but it is hard to understand what has happened during the period Judt describes unless you’ve lived through it. It seems like wondering what a good society might look like is almost forbidden. The general view is no other way of living is possible.
And yet we seem unable to conceive of alternatives. This too is something new.
The usual left/right arguments have been largely eliminated since the idea that we ought to provide for the commonweal has become heretical in mainstream discourse. But the results of the steady move away from thinking of the common good.
All around us, even in a recession, we see a level of individual wealth unequaled since the early years of the twentieth century. Conspicuous consumption of redundant consumer goods-houses, jewelry, cars, clothing, tech toys-has greatly expanded over the past generation. In the US, the UK, and a handful of other countries, financial transactions have largely displaced the production of goods or services as the source of private fortunes, distorting the value we place upon different kinds of economic activity. The wealthy, like the poor, have always been with us. But relative to everyone else, they are today wealthier and more conspicuous than at any time in living memory. Private privilege is easy to understand and describe. It is rather harder to convey the depths of public squalor into which we have fallen.
The only conclusion I can come to is that both the very rich, the poor and those in the middle are, across all political spectrums invested in a system where income disparities keep growing. Why? Why would someone on the bottom edge of the class structure want to maintain the attitudes reflected by someone like Donald Trump?
Judt and others who are advocating for creating a just and rational society are missing the point. This is what people want. This is really it. The most class consciousness I see among those who are on the lower part of the income ladder is a kind of sullen distrust of the rich; yet, at the same time, there are constant fantasies about winning the lottery. as if that would lift them not only out of poverty but all their personal problems. I often hear “if only I had more money.” This indicates that money is nearly everything. There is no chance, with that attitude, that any social change can happen from the bottom barring a major downturn where basic essential became very scarce. In general among rich or poor I haven’t heard any conversations with people who are relatively mainstream about social justice or about resistance to the oligarchy. There may be some anger at the Banksters but no hope that anything can be done to regulate the finance industry or any great support of reform. The usual focus for rage is, as the media has shown, aimed at outsiders of any kind particularly sexual predators, terrorists or mothers who neglect their children.
But that is to be expected isn’t it? Deep down we know that most people around us may be scared, dispirited, confused and tired but does it occur to anybody to make common cause with others? Not really. The basic movement that has been going on for three or four decades remains unchanged–i.e., moving toward ever increasing insularity and separateness and all that implies. To blame the highly refined mind-control techniques employed by the mainstream media for the current state of our society is a big mistake because the information and the tools to evaluate that information is available to all who want to use them. While the MSM certainly serves the oligarchs, people are addicted to the general narrative it provides. What else is there?
Judt wanders and wonders around the subject:
Poverty is an abstraction, even for the poor. But the symptoms of collective impoverishment are all about us. Broken highways, bankrupt cities, collapsing bridges, failed schools, the unemployed, the underpaid, and the uninsured: all suggest a collective failure of will. These shortcomings are so endemic that we no longer know how to talk about what is wrong, much less set about repairing it. And yet something is seriously amiss. Even as the US budgets tens of billions of dollars on a futile military campaign in Afghanistan, we fret nervously at the implications of any increase in public spending on social services or infrastructure.
This tells me that people have given up on the state. Is it because the state failed? Is it because they suspect that the state has lost interest in helping anyone? Is it because of the incessant right-with propaganda that dominates the media?
Social mobility is decreasing, income inequality is increasing–is this what we want? I say yes, that is what we want. We want that because we have lost any sense of there being a meaning to life other than money and materialism.
As recently as the 1970s, the idea that the point of life was to get rich and that governments existed to facilitate this would have been ridiculed: not only by capitalism’s traditional critics but also by many of its staunchest defenders. Relative indifference to wealth for its own sake was widespread in the postwar decades. In a survey of English schoolboys taken in 1949, it was discovered that the more intelligent the boy the more likely he was to choose an interesting career at a reasonable wage over a job that would merely pay well. Today’s schoolchildren and college students can imagine little else but the search for a lucrative job.
Why are kids today like that? Because there is nothing else to believe in. Nothing has been offered. There is no transcendent purpose to our lives. The right has offered various roads to meaning: 1) the worship of force and money; and 2) irrational cults and fantasies aka what is known as fundamentalist Christianity (which is neither fundamentalist nor Christian). What does the left offer? A set of agendas that are based on no grand narrative or feeling of transcendence. What the left offers is just a more sophisticated version of selfishness and even narcissism–often shown as a kind of ultimate sarcasm, i.e., punk leftism mistaking cleverness with virtue. I think the left must start to provide itself with a grander vision than just feeling superior to tea-party activists. The vision has to engage our need for meaning. This is why the left has failed so completely in recent years. It’s lack of vision and sense of transcendence has kept the left from sticking to principles–they voted for Obama rather than Kucinich why? What delusion was that?
There is no effective left in this country because there is no courage on the left. No willingness to confront the hard truths that sustains this society.