November 13, 2008

conspiracy vs. Conspiracy in American History

The notion that the parliamentary democracy of the industrial nations is a sham, and that the real power lies not in the hands of the people (or their elected representatives) but in the hands of a small, ruling elite is a view most closely associated with Karl Marx. This is one meaning of the word “conspiracy”: the ruling class knows what its interests are, and it acts to protect them. In this sense of the term, conspiracy is equivalent to elite theory, because the implication is that the ruling class acts with a unified consciousness. Indeed, Marx argued that the emergence of conflicts within the ranks of the elite was a sign that the system was ripe for revolutionary overthrow.

Elite theory, then, holds that the people (or masses) are under the illusion that through their vote they control the direction of the ship of state, whereas the real captains of the ship–the captains of industry, the eminences grises–are not themselves on the ballot. The public does not get to vote for them, but rather for their paid representatives. Thus the post-election euphoria in the United States over Barack Obama is nothing more than a bubble, an illusion, because the lion’s share of the $750 million he collected in campaign contributions (according to the Australian journalist John Pilger) came from Goldman Sachs, UBS AG, Lehman Brothers, J.P. Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, and the huge hedge fund Citadel Investment Group. These corporations, it hardly need be said, do not have the welfare of the American people as their top priority; and it is also the case that having invested in a president, they expect a return on their investment once he takes office. And if history is any guide here, they are going to get it. It is for this reason that what we have in the United States, according to Harvard political scientist Michael Sandel, is a “procedural democracy”: the form, the appearance, is democratic, but the actual content, the result, is not. As the eminent sociologist C. Wright Mills put it in 1956,

“In so far as the structural clue to the power elite today lies in the
political order, that clue is the decline of politics as genuine and
public debate of alternative decisions....America is now in considerable
part more a formal political democracy than a democratic social
structure, and even the formal political mechanics are weak.”

While it is undoubtedly true that elites occasionally act in a deliberate and concerted way, it was Mills in particular who pointed out that the reality was significantly more nuanced than this. For the most part, it is not that the rich or super-rich get together in some corporate boardroom and ask themselves, “Now how can we best screw the workers and the middle class?” No, said Mills, what in fact happens is that they socialize together, in an informal sort of way, and recognize their class affiliations:

“Members of the several higher circles know one another as personal
friends and even as neighbors; they mingle with one another on the
golf course, in the gentlemen’s clubs, at resorts, on transcontinental
airplanes, and on ocean liners. They meet at the estates of mutual
friends, face each other in front of the TV camera, or serve on the same
philanthropic committee; and many are sure to cross one another’s path
in the columns of newspapers, if not in the exact cafés from which many
of these columns originate....The conception of the power elite,
accordingly, does not rest upon the assumption that American history
since the origins of World War II must be understood as a secret plot,
or as a great and co-ordinated conspiracy of the members of this elite.
The conception rests upon quite impersonal grounds.”

We are not, in short, talking about some sort of organized brotherhood, some quasi-Masonic financial clique, as it were. However–and this is the crucial point–in terms of concrete outcome, we might as well be. Mills goes on:

“But, once the conjunction of structural trends and of the personal will
to utilize it gave rise to the power elite, then plans and programs did
occur to its members and indeed it is not possible to interpret many
events and official policies...without reference to the power elite.”

Mills’ work falls more into the category of social criticism than of social science per se; he was not big on facts and figures. But in the fifty-plus years since he wrote the above words, his profile of American democracy as illusory has been fleshed out by numerous sociologists and political scientists armed with reams of data. The most recent work in this genre, Superclass, by David Rothkopf, identifies a global elite of roughly 6,000 individuals who are running the show, worldwide, and the top fifty financial institutions that control nearly $50 trillion in assets. Plot or no plot, the results are the same.

This, then, is elite theory, or what I call conspiracy with a small “c”. And it is a real fact of political life, no question about it. But what may be even more significant than this are what I call Conspiracies with a capital “C”, by which I mean the unconscious mythologies, or isms, that govern American life. This was the thing that Marx, and Mills, both missed (though the Italian sociologist Antonio Gramsci did come close to it with his notion of “hegemony,” or the symbolic control of society): the elites aren’t doing anything that the masses don’t already agree with; which is why, certainly, in the United States, socialism never really had a chance. When Henry Wriston, who was president of the Council on Foreign Relations during 1951-64, wrote that U.S. foreign policy “is the expression of the will of the people,” he knew what he was talking about. As many observers (even American ones) have pointed out, what the American people–less than 5% of the world’s population–want is an indulgent and wasteful lifestyle, in which they consume 25% of the world’s energy. Thus in the presidential debates of October 2008, Barack Obama referred to the 25% figure, and then talked about ways of ensuring that that rate of consumption continue unchecked. He did not, as did Jimmy Carter more than thirty years ago, argue that growth was not necessarily a positive thing, that Americans needed to burn less energy, and that the American military–the guarantor of that profligate lifestyle–had to be scaled down accordingly. Indeed, within two years of taking office, Mr. Carter was popularly regarded as something of a joke, and by 1980 Ronald Reagan, who told the American people they could have it all, was elected by a landslide. (Significantly, the first thing he did upon moving into the White House was to have the solar panels that Mr. Carter had installed on the roof removed.) So while it is true that elites run the show, they nevertheless govern with the (misguided) consent of the people. As the nineteenth-century Sioux holy man, Chief Sitting Bull, was supposed to have said, “possessions are a disease with them.” But his was hardly the majority view–not then, not now.

What, then, are the major Conspiracies, or isms, of American life? I think we can identify four, in particular.

1. The notion of Americans as the “chosen people,” and of the nation as a “city on a hill.” This latter phrase–quoted by both Barack Obama and Sarah Palin in the 2008 presidential campaign–goes back to the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, as he was sailing from England to America on the Arabella in 1630:

“We shall find that the God of Israel is among us....He shall
make us a praise and glory....For we must Consider that we
shall be as a City upon a Hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”

The idea is that it would be America’s unique mission to bring democracy to all the peoples of the earth, inasmuch as the American way of life was (obviously) the best. (Iraq is merely the latest manifestation of this way of thinking.) In fact, the Puritans took the Jews of the Old Testament as their model, in which the exodus from Egypt, and invasion of Canaan, was regarded as the paradigm for the establishment of the Colonies. Cotton Mather even referred to the Massachusetts Bay Colony as “our American Jerusalem.” The notion that the story of the United States is the primary manifestation of God’s will on earth has an enormous hold on the American psyche. “American exceptionalism,” Alexis de Tocqueville called it; it is with us to this day.

2. Along with this we have Ism No. 2: the existence, in the United States, of a “civil religion.” This was first pointed out by the sociologist Robert Bellah in 1967, the fact that despite the presence of Catholicism, Judaism, and numerous Protestant sects in America, the real religion of the American people was America itself. To be an American is regarded (unconsciously, by Americans) as an ideological/religious commitment, not an accident of birth. This is why critics of the US are immediately labeled “un-American,” and are practically regarded as traitors. (Quite ridiculous, when you think about it: can you imagine a Swedish critic of Sweden, for example, being attacked as “un-Swedish”?) The historian Sidney Mead pegged it correctly when he called America “the nation with the soul of a church,” while another historian, Richard Hofstadter, declared that “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one.” As Graham Greene portrayed it in The Quiet American, this is not a position that encourages self-reflection.

3. The third unconscious mythology is the one identified by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893: the existence of a supposedly endless frontier, into which the American people would expand geographically. Eventually, it became an economic frontier, and finally an imperial one–Manifest Destiny gone global. This lay at the heart of the Carter-Reagan debate, for the notion of limits to growth is almost a form of heresy in an American context. The American Dream envisions a world without limits, in which the goal, as the gangster (played by Edward G. Robinson) tells Humphrey Bogart in Key Largo, is simply “more”. De Tocqueville had already, in the 1830s, commented on the great “restlessness” of the American people; and more than a century later, the British journalist Alistair Cooke remarked that what were regarded as luxuries throughout most of the world, were regarded as necessities in the United States. If Americans never had much of an interest in socialism, they probably had even less interest in buddhism, the occasional Zen center notwithstanding. It was not for nothing that the historian William Leach entitled his study of late-nineteenth-century American expansionism, Land of Desire.

4. Finally, we have a national character based on extreme individualism–Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” As the historian Joyce Appleby describes it, this originated in the shift in the definition of the word “virtue” that took place in the Colonies in the 1790s. Previous to that time, the word had a European (or even classical) definition, namely “the capacity of some men to rise above private interests and devote themselves to the public good.” By 1800, the definition had undergone a complete inversion: “virtue” now meant the capacity to look out for oneself in an opportunistic environment. Whereas the former definition was adhered to by the Federalists, the Jeffersonian Republicans actively promoted the latter definition, as part of the new nation’s break with England and all things European. Life was not to be about service to the community, but rather about competition and acquisition of goods. This is summarized in the popular American expression, “There is no free lunch.” The “self-made man” is expected to make it on his own.

There have been very few dissenters to this fourth ism; in many ways, American history can be seen as the story of a nation consistently choosing individual solutions over collective ones. One American who did dissent, however, was Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. In Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions he wrote: “The philosophy of self-sufficiency is not paying off. Plainly enough, it is a bone-crushing juggernaut whose final achievement is ruin.”

And “ruin” is the operative word here. While there is certainly an upside to these four isms–the sunny side of technological innovation and the Yankee “can-do” mentality, for example–in the long run these unconscious mythologies, in dialectical fashion, began to turn against those caught up in their magic spell. It surely cannot be an accident that 25% of all the world’s prisoners are incarcerated in American jails (1% of the entire US adult population); that two-thirds of the world’s consumption of antidepressants occurs in the United States; that 24% of the American population say that it’s OK to use violence in the pursuit of one’s goals, 44% support the torture of alleged or suspected terrorists, and 39% want Muslims in the US to be required to carry a religious ID on them at all times (why not just make it a yellow star, and be done with it?); that the country has the greatest percentage of single-person dwellings in the world, the highest homicide rate, the largest military budget (by several orders of magnitude), and the greatest number of square feet of shopping malls on the surface of the planet. The data on ignorance, which I have documented elsewhere, are breathtaking, and Robert Putnam’s description (in Bowling Alone) of the collapse of community, trust, and friendship is one of the saddest things I have ever read. Dialectically, and ironically, American “success” became American ruin; the crash of October 2008 was merely the tip of the iceberg.

The power of isms, certainly in the American case, derives from the fact that they are unconscious, embedded deep in the psyche. They constitute Conspiracies in that those who hold them are like marionettes on strings, screaming “Obama!” (for example) without realizing that the new president can no more buck the elites running the country than he can dismantle the mythologies that drive its citizens–himself included. As for the individual, so for the nation: the only hope is to see ourselves as we are seen, from the outside, as it were. And therein lies the paradox. For the four Conspiracies close in on themselves, forming a kind of mirror-lined glass sphere that does not permit any dissonant information to enter. Sandel, Mills, Rothkopf, Bellah, Mead, Leach, Appleby, Putnam–America’s finest, really–will never become household words, and if they did, it would probably be as objects of contempt. For this is finally the most terrifying thing about isms or Conspiracies: we do not choose them; rather, it is they that choose us.

©Morris Berman, 2008