After the defeat of Goldwater in 1964, the well-respected historian of American politics and thought, Richard Hofstadter, wrote that “…right-wingers…are willing to gamble with the future, enjoy the wide-ranging freedom of the agitational mind, with its paranoid suspicions, its impossible demands, and its millennial dreams of total victory.”
Clearly nothing has changed since 1965. Those to the far right of the political spectrum still envision a time when “homo economicus” reigns supreme, a time when government will cease to be an impediment to innovation, entrepreneurialism and, of course, profits. However, could it be that this vision itself will lead to a social, economic, and political apocalypse in America?
I revert to the apocalyptic theme because, as Hofstadter pointed out in The Paranoid Style in American Politics, the American mind has been permeated with this notion of the Manichean struggle. We do not think about pure drinking water until it affects our health, or we learn that some evil corporation is trying to increase the sale of bottled water. In short, we are unmoved by the banal. Everything must be a crisis, an existential battle between the forces of good and evil.
Education is in crisis. Parents and students are battling the evil teachers’ unions. Our education crisis has nothing to do with the segments of our society devoid of economic opportunity and rife with crime—a situation exacerbated by a misguided and ineffective “war on drugs.” Politics is in crisis because there is too much money involved in getting elected, not because politicians are already in the pockets of the corporations and unresponsive to the needs and wants of middle class Americans or the working poor. Our economic life is in crisis because entitlements have grown too large and generous, not because of the $1.1 trillion a year we spend on so-called “defense.”
The apocalypse that the right-wing of the Republican Party would have us avoid through a return to God, balanced budgets, and even more defense spending, may have already begun. It may have started with what Christopher Lasch termed the “war of all against all” in American society. We cannot be sure when this war began, although Daniel Bell fingers the early twentieth century when the rise of mass production led to mass consumption and advertising—the creation of needs we never knew we had.
The ethos of self-satisfaction pervades our society. It is solipsistic, relativistic, and subjective—a redundancy of verbiage I use to make my point. While the post-modern deconstructionist tries to convince us that words have no meaning, the moralists of the right try to convince us that this life is a mere shadow of that better and more spiritual one to come. Both make a mockery of that great movement of the eighteenth century which tied language more closely to reality, especially in the realm of science.
It is this lack of reality that has played such a large role in our present crisis: a lack in U.S. employment, diminished access to consumer credit, and slow GDP growth. We are unwilling to face up to the fact that nearly all the growth in our economy over the last forty years has been largely the result of smoke and mirrors, an illusion fueled by ruinous increases in public and private debt, unsustainable tax cuts, two real-estate bubbles, the bubble in information technology, and a spending spree on defense and transfer payments.
The reality is that we must not only modestly restrain the growth of entitlement spending, we must also make draconian cuts to defense—dismantling the “American empire,” as the late Chalmers Johnson argued in his last book. We should put in place a national health care system, which would place us at parity with other industrialized nations that now have better access and outcomes when it comes to the delivery of medicine. More importantly, we must raise taxes, and not just on the rich. Everyone must contribute. There should be no free ride for anyone above the poverty line.
We can no longer afford to mindlessly intone the notion that we are a loose collection of “rational economic beings”—a dubious idea to begin with. We can no longer afford to “go it alone” as our heroes do in the movies. There will be no last minute rescue when our entitlements and our military spending tip us over into national bankruptcy. We have only each other, and as St. Paul once wrote, “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”
So, let us renew that social contract our founding fathers made with one another in the form of the Declaration of Independence. Let us reaffirm our commitment to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Let us figure out ways to increase self-reliance, and build self-sustaining “communities of competence,” but not at the expense of the most vulnerable in our society.
We have a choice to make. We can either work together for an equitable and stable society, or we can continue to wage this “war of all against all” where everyone loses and the right-wing apocalyptic vision becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.