Is This All There Is?

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.


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    • banger on May 5, 2010 at 06:48

    Is there any chance for change?

  1. or lack thereof

    the myth of the american dream is a real factor – it’s the pseudo – karma

    if you’re poor or rich it’s b/c you deserve it

    that’s where we at-  among  the limousine / volvo / bmw liberals

    (or whatever their called now–Prius Pious’s maybe?? )

  2. what you mean by “the left” when you say this:

    there is no courage on the left.

    Now, if you’re talking about the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and calling it “the left” I suppose you could make that case.  I don’t consider that to be the “Left”, there’s nothing essentially “leftist” in anything about the Democratic Party or any of its elements.  It is at best a class collaborationist organization, in those small segments of it which manifest as anything other than as an instrument of corporate hegemony.

    Where I come from, what I consider to be The Left, is that amalgam of forces that can be seen coming together for things like the US Social Forum, and in the context of the (misnamed) anti-globalization movement.  There is no lack of personal courage among these dedicated leftists.  What is lacking, and I think we all know it much too well, is a sense that we have any legitimacy, that there is any acceptance among any substantial portion of the American public that we’re even entitled to hold the views that we do.  

    The sense of being pariahs, that we will be hounded and demonized for our opinions alone, even when we are repeatedly correct on matters of great importance to large numbers of people, is both pervasive among us, and well-founded.  We never have any voice within the mainstream media, and that lack of self-representation allows others to caricature us, to alternatively mock us or demonize us, whichever serves hegemony’s interests of the moment better.  And we have no idea about how to break ourselves out of this box, and it’s not for a lack of effort or imagination.  The system of repression that exists in the US today is remarkably sophisticated and subtle, and we are still searching for a praxis to break free of its constraints.  The mechanics of cooptation and marginalization hem us into the metaphorical equivalent of the encaged Free Speech Zones which we are increasingly frequently forced into physically.

  3. The best version ever, by Cristina:

    • Edger on May 5, 2010 at 16:07

    And they’re free.

  4. architecture of our manufactured mind. And the architecture of our manufactured mind is reflected in the architecture of our manufactured physical world.

    The walled city with the towering church still dominates our landscape. This is how we still choose to live our lives. We still repeat the same mistake of Pericles, and seek comfort inside the walls. But it’s a trap. It’s too small and there will be plague.

    You speak of the goddess, banger, but although omnipresent, she remains invisible to man. Our succor resides inside us and beyond us. I don’t see us breaking out of our mind forged manacles (my favorite phrase from William Blake). I think you have the same take on things as he did/does.

    Nice Essay

  5. to say that there is no left.

    there are old time leftists without a single coherent unifying principle or plan.

    people have been taught to want nothing of value.

    to be fair, the forces arrayed against the left were far more powerful then we realized.

    the idea that we can vote anyone in who could change this in any meaningful way is absurd.

    as pluto has posted: americans are batshit crazy.

    to those of you who still have hope: please go out and do what you see needs doing.

    i feel like claudius recording the demise of the roman empire.

    it is past turning away from its own death, but the romans could not kill the planet (even though this is an exaggeration because life will go on, just not human life as we know it and maybe not enough of us to do much of anything at all for thousands of years.)

    i don’t give a whit for human beings as a class anymore.

    i would certainly still help the beings around me but not with any sense that we are staving off disaster.

    humans not only want all the meaningless bullshit, including granite countertops as a minimally necessary acoutrement, humans want to die.

    the death wish/fear is stronger than the life wish right now.

    i don’t think this was always so, but extreme capitalism has brought us to this point.

    of course this is my perspective from inside the usa, the belly of the beast.  

    i guess i still have hope that other humans will stop us.  but we have practically all the firepower so they had better use all their smarts and wisdom to figure out how to disarm us from all directions.

  6. Morgan2

    Change is not by chance it is constant and ongoing. This  reality is not static or invincible, it is unraveling as we type. Misinformation and brainwashing cultural denial will not hold as it unfolds. People are resilient and the forces that have us in their clutches always over and over fall. The process of their falls vary. Falling apart is part of the process. For me it’s a within without thing.


    • Edger on May 5, 2010 at 20:28

    Maybe a horse or a canoe, and a backpack?

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