From the reading I’ve been doing lately, the question seems to be coming up a lot lately: if things are getting so bad for the middle and working classes, why is there no uprising? Even Barack Obama, who has been as insensitive to the plight of the unemployed and of homeowners who are losing their homes as anyone inside the Beltway, recently acknowledged—now that the 2012 presidential campaign is under way—at a town hall meeting, “I think a lot of people just feel like the American dream, the core notion that if you work hard and you act responsibly that you can pass on a better life to your kids and your grandkids. A lot of folks aren’t feeling that anymore.”
In part the answer is that there is an uprising, but not recognizably in the form that these writers are looking for, but rather in the form of the Tea Party, the culmination of a longer-term movement deriving in part from the economic displacement of so-called “free” trade, in part from the paradox of a military defeat but something of a political victory of the Old South in the Civil War, in part from an exceptionalism that confounds imperial and white privilege, and in part from an interpretation of the Protestant Reformation that condemns anyone who gets in between “me” and “my” money as a leech, which channels economic insecurity into an attack on those who are even more disadvantaged. The paradox that this movement deflects blame from and supports the oppressor is better—though I won’t say adequately—understood in an attitude that reduces education to preparation for wage slavery, and now that jobs have been exported, not even that as we’re all supposed to be independent contractors, “free” from job security.
Charles Reich recognized the portrayal of prosperity on television as pacifying the masses but predicted a cognitive dissonance with people’s own conditions that would ultimately prove to be the system’s undoing. Herbert Marcuse, in a brilliant “political preface” prepended to his Eros and Civilization, seemed to recognize something similar but observing the Orwellian terms in which freedom has come to be understood (and certainly not just since the 9/11 attacks), suggested that “the odds are overwhelmingly on the side of the powers that be.” Reich, writing in 1970, seems to have thought the counterculture movement might yet accomplish its ends. Marcuse, writing his preface in 1966, too seems at one point almost to have been taken in, concluding,
To the degree to which organized labor operates in defense of the status quo, and to the degree to which the share of labor in the material process of production declines, intellectual skills and capabilities become social and political factors. Today, the organized refusal to cooperate of the scientists, mathematicians, technicians, industrial psychologists and public opinion pollsters may well accomplish what a strike, even a large-scale strike, can no longer accomplish but once accomplished, namely, the beginning of the reversal, the preparation of the ground for political action. That the idea appears utterly unrealistic does not reduce the political responsibility involved int he position and function of the intellectual in contemporary industrial society. The intellectual refusal may find support in another catalyst, the instinctual refusal among the youth in protest. It is their lives which are at stake, and if not their lives, their mental health and their capacity to function as unmutilated humans. Their protest will continue because it is a biological necessity. “By nature,” the young are in the forefront of those who live and fight for Eros against Death, and against a civilization which strives to shorten the “detour to death” while controlling the means for lengthening the detour. But in the administered society, the biological necessity does not immediately issue in action; organization demands counter-organization. Today the fight for life, the fight for Eros, is the political fight.
Marcuse wrote before the assassination of Martin Luther KIng Jr., before the Kent State killings, before much of the violence against the counterculture movement of the 1960s and early 1970s in a whitewashed—perhaps I should say nearly erased—history that exposes our own regime as no different from those which Arabs across the Middle East and North Africa now rebel against. That history follows another forgotten history of state-sanctioned violence against the labor movement, in which it is mysteriously completely acceptable for employers to organize against workers, but damnably “communist” if workers should organize in self-defense against employers. The manifest failure of this system to deliver for ordinary middle class and working class people—let alone the poor—now seems only to reinforce an Ayn Randian tendency towards a utopia for the wealthy, the closer to which we get, the worse it becomes for everyone else.
Marcuse’s work is now at the top of my stack of unread books. Perhaps he offers further insight. But for now I can only say that a critical mass of the population not only misapprehends the cause of their anxiety, but rejects information that would expose that cause. Given the violence of the state’s reaction to the counterculture movement, I can see how this might be adaptive. Given the seemingly inevitable outcome of misery and deprivation, I cannot see how it can be successfully adaptive. But our refusal to contemplate any alternative leads to an unfathomable future. Perhaps we are already in that future and it is only my own maladaption, my own insanity, my own failure to “comply and repress”—Marcuse writes that “it is not a bad life for those who comply and repress”—that prevents me from accepting humanity as reduced to cogs in a corporate machine, accepting justice as reduced to law passed by wealthy white males against everyone else, accepting order as reduced to upholding the position of the wealthy against everyone else, and accepting security as reduced to a condition of continual warfare and endemic surveillance.
- Michael D. Shear, “Town Hall Participants Ask Obama for Help,” New York Times, May 12, 2011, http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/12/town-hall-participants-to-obama-help-us-please/↩
- Steven J. Bartlett, “Barbarians at the Door,” Modern Age 35(4): 296, http://www.mmisi.org/ma/35_04/bartlett.pdf; Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Henry Holt, 2005); Beverly Ryle, Ground of Your Own Choosing: Winning Strategies for Finding & Creating Work, (North Eastham, MA: Shank Painter, 2008); Robert E. Scott, “Heading South: U.S.-Mexico Trade and Job Displacement after NAFTA,” Electronic Policy Institute, May 3, 2011, http://epi.3cdn.net/fdade52b876e04793b_7fm6ivz2y.pdf; Scott Sernau, Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006).↩
- Charles A. Reich, The Greening of America (New York: Crown, 1970).↩
- Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Boston: Beacon, 1966), xx.↩
- Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, xxv.↩
- Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, xx↩