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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Why its politics, not the economy, Stupid!

What makes the Great American Depression of 2017 political?

I contend that our present national depression is political, rather than economic or cultural or individual, because this depression results from the depletion of public space. Individuals, even groups of them, religions and other cultural phenomena, and the neoliberal capitalist economy may persist and, for some, thrive. Many of us attain private happiness, e.g. pleasure through the Sirens' songs or the odors of the lotus fields, but we do not have public happiness, which includes a sense of engagement and meaning in relation to a higher power beyond our individual satisfaction. 

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Positive psychologist Martin Seligman claims that there are three levels of happiness: 1) Pleasure—the “feel good for now” happiness of consumption represented by wealth, sex, health, fun, food and drink (measured by amount of money).  2) Engagement with others, friendship, relationships, and approval of others. 3)Meaning— experience of having purpose which is the sense of being in touch or aligned with a higher power. He is drawing upon Abraham Mazlow’s hierarchy of human needs which starts from what is necessary to sustain life and is completed in “self-actualization,” the fulfillment of the full potential of the person

This is an insightful tool and model for positive psychologists to employ when treating individuals struck with the mental illness of debilitating sadness or clinical depression, an illness that is spreading geometrically like a contagion in modern society. But this diagnosis misses an important distinction that underlies a fundamental dimension in human existence.  That distinction is “public” and “private.” 

Private happiness takes place in the household (or “economy” in classical Greek). The economy is the realm of production and consumption with pleasure measured by the accumulation of wealth. The engagement with others occurs and is defined by levels of authority or class. Its meaning is expressed in a culture that values individual achievement of wealth through tribal religions with household gods and through an education that fosters the rise from poorer, more dependent classes to wealthier, more dominant classes.   

Hannah Arendt maintains that the “pursuit of happiness” in Jefferson's Declaration means public, over private, happiness. Its pleasure comes not from consumption of material goods, but from achievement of public good. Public happiness happens in the engagement with others as equals in creating publics and extending the public realm. It enjoys the meaning discovered and constructed through the free inquiry, speech, and action of engaged citizens.  
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We live and act in space-time. Some very learned scientists and philosophers would argue that both space and time are constructions of the human organism’s interaction with its environment. That is, they are products of our existence in the universe. There is in human being a tension that is time—the before and the-yet-to-come in the experience of being now. And there is in human being a tension that is space—the back-there and the over-there experience of being here.

And there is a tension between space and time in which the human journey from past to future is both private and public. There is no private without public. No privacy without publicity. And vice versa. Notice how the lessening of the democratic commons is also a lessening of privacy through autocracy. 

There are two dimensions of human being. Two sides of the proverbial coin of the realm. The private realm of living (economy) and the public realm of action (politics). Liberty, the absence of the necessity to be occupied in pursuit of life’s needs in the private realm is one thing. Freedom, the capacity to participate fully in the creation of public space is something else. Liberty is freedom from. Freedom is liberty for

The liberty to pursue private happiness has temporal primacy as does biological life. It comes first in time. Freedom for public happiness through action is first in space. Freedom has primacy ontololgically, i.e. in order of importance for us as human beings. The private realm is the place of power over. The public realm is the place of power with

There is both biography and history; and they are interconnected. My journey from life to death is a part of the story of the community, the nation, and the universe. 

I personally cannot be totally free until all my fellow travelers are free. My worth is deeply connected to the worth of humankind. My personal peace requires social justice.

All this is saying that private happiness can never be achieved fully unless there is public happiness. 

My sense of helplessness, unworthiness, ennui, insignificance is interdependent with others. My private personal happiness requires public interpersonal happiness. 

Life and the fulfilment of its needs, liberty to engage with others voluntarily, and the pursuit of public happiness in freedom. These are our rights and responsibilities in being human.
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To overcome our political depression requires a reckoning with our social habits or institutions that pull us down. Especially the disorder that makes private happiness measured by individual wealth the goal of our social order and the measure of its success. This is the disorder of subjecting politics to economy, of making our community and its governance dependent on private prosperity which in the America today is the domination and destruction of democracy by neoliberal economics or American capitalism.

The confusion between liberty (free from) and freedom (free for) explains the new anti-democrats who have arisen today. For they teach that, when decisions are made, and the social order is constructed democratically, people will be bound by limits and regulations and so lack liberty. But democracy is exactly that space where all persons shape the social order to limit liberty. For it is only within limits that all can be equal and free. Even the commons, the space of freedom, the public has boundaries without which there is no freedom. A free state is also a rule of law. 

Liberty for autocrats, usually the rich and would-be rich, abounds in a social order dominated by a liberal economy, i.e. a plutocracy. Freedom abounds in a social order governed by all who see each other as equals with dignity by nature rather than by race, religion, status, or class. That is a democratic republic.

How can we enjoy both liberty and freedom in our situation in America today?  How can we reclaim democracy and resist autocracy? Those are the same questions. 

To cure our political depression, we accept that democracy is threatened. Rich persons and large corporations reign and sell their agenda to us the public who are being reduced to individual consumers. According to the rulers, the measure of success is the quantity of production and consumption, the worth of the dollar and of stocks, and the ability to force this agenda on the rest of the world. We confront the plutocrats who engage in economic and cultural wars to distract us from our political depression.

To cure our political depression, we acknowledge our responsibility for this situation. We realize that we in concert have the power to change this. To change our addiction to wealth, we rely on our higher power which is the assembly of free citizens in an open and just society. We resist the plutocratic, anti-democratic forces of the Republic for which we stand. We renew and reassert our democratic principles and institutions.  As Jefferson advised, democratic rebellion is the responsibility of each generation. 

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Finally, to answer the culturalists (Bell, Marcuse,DuPuy) who have correctly probed the absence of the sacred and the permanence of values in a one-dimensional consumer society shaped by capitalism, we can reaffirm the sacred not in private devotion to some god in the sky, but in the restoration of public space, the place of power and freedom, where persons in concert, assuming each other’s dignity and equality, act together to progressively transcend the limits of knowledge and freedom for all.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism

One of the signs of the American depression is the opioid epidemic. Just read the most insightful article "The Poison We Pick” by Andrew Sullivan in the New York Magazine. “Opioids are just one of the ways Americans are trying to cope with an inhuman new world where everything is flat, where communication is virtual, and where those core elements of human happiness — faith, family, community — seem to elude so many. Until we resolve these deeper social, cultural, and psychological problems, until we discover a new meaning or reimagine our old religion or reinvent our way of life, the poppy will flourish.”

He refers to sociologist Daniel Bell’s 32-year-old book 32, “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism,” where he teaches that the American culture is now well adapted to the principles and goals of the American economy: the mastering of nature, the accumulation of wealth, unlimited growth, and the commodification of producers and consumers. The American culture spreading throughout the world has become one-dimensional without a sense of the sacred.  Bell was in sync with Marcuse and Adorno of the Frankfurt School describing the loss of permanent values that causes the ennui and angst of a “post-industrial society.”


Bell, reaching back to the first sociologist Max Weber, identified the three major components of society: culture, economy, and politics and then attributed the woes of modern society to the “disjunction” among them. For Bell a diseased culture adapting to capitalism and lacking an enduring belief was the chief culprit. He named this culture, as did many others, “modernism” or, in its advanced form, “post-modernism.”  This culture was marked by the triumph of the rational over faith, the secular over the sacred, the material of the spiritual.  In modern art, religion, philosophy, and even science—all constituents of modern culture—anything goes.  All things are permitted as long as they are accepted by the masses.  That is, as long as they sell.

I certainly agree with much of what Bell and the Frankfurt philosophers were describing and even prescribing. I also think it is important to understand the distinction and relationships among culture, economy, and politics.  However, I disagree with the primacy he places on culture.  Bell describes himself as a cultural conservative, an economic socialist, and a political liberal.  I describe myself as a cultural liberal or even libertarian, an economic socialist, and a political conservative in the democratic republican tradition. While Bell would attempt to preserve cultural ideas and institutions, I want them all challenged and transcended.  However, in politics, especially now, I devote myself to the conserving of democratic republican ideas and institutions.



Monday, March 12, 2018

Treatment of the American Depression

Here is the conclusion of Andrew Sullivan's excellent article on the Opioid Epidemic in America. It demonstrates the hopeless pain of, and hopeless attempt to, cure America's political depression. 


It’s been several decades since Daniel Bell wrote The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, but his insights have proven prescient. Ever-more-powerful market forces actually undermine the foundations of social stability, wreaking havoc on tradition, religion, and robust civil associations, destroying what conservatives value the most. They create a less human world. They make us less happy. They generate pain.

This was always a worry about the American experiment in capitalist liberal democracy. The pace of change, the ethos of individualism, the relentless dehumanization that capitalism abets, the constant moving and disruption, combined with a relatively small government and the absence of official religion, risked the construction of an overly atomized society, where everyone has to create his or her own meaning, and everyone feels alone. The American project always left an empty center of collective meaning, but for a long time Americans filled it with their own extraordinary work ethic, an unprecedented web of associations and clubs and communal or ethnic ties far surpassing Europe’s, and such a plethora of religious options that almost no one was left without a purpose or some kind of easily available meaning to their lives. Tocqueville marveled at this American exceptionalism as the key to democratic success, but he worried that it might not endure forever.

And it hasn’t. What has happened in the past few decades is an accelerated waning of all these traditional American supports for a meaningful, collective life, and their replacement with various forms of cheap distraction. Addiction — to work, to food, to phones, to TV, to video games, to porn, to news, and to drugs — is all around us. The core habit of bourgeois life — deferred gratification — has lost its grip on the American soul. We seek the instant, easy highs, and it’s hard not to see this as the broader context for the opioid wave. This was not originally a conscious choice for most of those caught up in it: Most were introduced to the poppy’s joys by their own family members and friends, the last link in a chain that included the medical establishment and began with the pharmaceutical companies. 

It may be best to think of this wave therefore not as a function of miserable people turning to drugs en masse but of people who didn’t realize how miserable they were until they found out what life without misery could be. To return to their previous lives became unthinkable. For so many, it still is.
If Marx posited that religion is the opiate of the people, then we have reached a new, more clarifying moment in the history of the West: Opiates are now the religion of the people. A verse by the poet William Brewer sums up this new world:

Where once was faith,

there are sirens: red lights spinning door to door, a record twenty-four in one day, all the bodies

at the morgue filled with light.

It is easy to dismiss or pity those trapped or dead for whom opiates have filled this emptiness. But it’s not quite so easy for the tens of millions of us on antidepressants, or Xanax, or some benzo-drug to keep less acute anxieties at bay. In the same period that opioids have spread like wildfire, so has the use of cannabis — another downer nowhere near as strong as opiates but suddenly popular among many who are the success stories of our times. Is it any wonder that something more powerful is used by the failures? There’s a passage in one of Brewer’s poems that tears at me all the time. It’s about an opioid-addicted father and his son. The father tells us:

Times my simple son will shake me to,
syringe still hanging like a feather from my arm. 
What are you always doing, he asks.
Flying, I say. Show me how, he begs.
And finally, I do. You’d think
the sun had gotten lost inside his head,
the way he smiled.

To see this epidemic as simply a pharmaceutical or chemically addictive problem is to miss something: the despair that currently makes so many want to fly away.

Opioids are just one of the ways Americans are trying to cope with an inhuman new world where everything is flat, where communication is virtual, and where those core elements of human happiness — faith, family, community — seem to elude so many. Until we resolve these deeper social, cultural, and psychological problems, until we discover a new meaning or reimagine our old religion or reinvent our way of life, the poppy will flourish.

We have seen this story before — in America and elsewhere.
The allure of opiates’ joys are filling a hole in the human heart and soul today as they have since the dawn of civilization. But this time, the drugs are not merely laced with danger and addiction. In a way never experienced by humanity before, the pharmaceutically sophisticated and ever more intense bastard children of the sturdy little flower bring mass death in their wake. This time, they are agents of an eternal and enveloping darkness. And there is a long, long path ahead, and many more bodies to count, before we will see any light.


*This article appears in the February 19, 2018, issue of New York Magazine.