January 29, 2011

The Structuralists

[Once again, let me apologize to those of you who bought a copy of A Question of Values. The following essay is included in that collection, but is posted here online for the first time.]

Limbo is our Way of Life.

–William Appleman Williams

The word "structuralism" is commonly associated with a group of French intellectuals who were prominent in the sixties and seventies, and whose work, which was based on linguistics, came to dominate the human sciences for a good many years. Indeed, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Louis Althusser constituted a veritable galaxy of talent. Although one can find numerous academic texts explaining what structuralism is, the philosophy (or mode of analysis) can be summarized as follows:

1. Every system, whether it be a novel or a civilization, has a structure, i.e. is characterized by deep underlying patterns.
2. That structure is more significant than the individual elements of the system, and in fact determines the position or role of the elements in the system.
3. In any system, continuity is much more common than change, and that continuity follows the "map" provided by the deep underlying patterns.
4. Structures are the "real things" that lie beneath the surface phenomena, or appearances (cf. the distinction between light and shadows in Plato's Parable of the Cave).

Understood in this way, it seems fair to assert that structuralism is not the exclusive property of the French. For example, although structural analysis is not typical of U.S. intellectual circles, a few American scholars have nevertheless used it in their research to great effect. I am thinking of four writers in particular, whose work, when integrated into a comprehensive whole, provides a radically different picture of the United States than the one commonly held: the land of freedom and opportunity. It is not likely that many Americans would be able to tolerate this alternative structuralist view of American history, although they needn't worry, inasmuch as anything even mildly resembling it remains very far removed from public discussion. Thus for most Americans, Vietnam was an unfortunate "mistake"; Iraq is part of the effort to "spread democracy" (but now in the process of being reclassified as a mistake); September 11th was the result of enemies who are "evil" or "insane"; and the economic crash of October 2008 was the product of individual greed, the work of a few (perhaps even quite a few) "bad apples". None of these sorts of events (which could, in fact, be multiplied indefinitely) are seen as being endemic to the system, to the American Way of Life; as following inevitably from its underlying structure. That would, needless to say, be a wake-up call of the first magnitude.

The four scholars I have in mind probably never met, and for the most part (not entirely) were ignorant of each others' work. These are the historians William Appleman Williams (d. 1990) and Joyce Appleby (Professor Emerita, UCLA); the philosopher Albert Borgmann (U of Montana); and the Chilean-born writer and journalist Ariel Dorfman (who has lived and worked in the United States for several decades now). Ostensibly, they don't have all that much in common, having directed their attention to very diverse topics. But as indicated above, when you put them together you get a picture of the United States that forms a coherent whole, one that most Americans would find very disturbing to contemplate. As the saying goes, they don't teach this sort of thing in school.

To begin with Williams, then: 2009 marked the fiftieth anniversary of his most famous work, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. In this book, Williams argues that the expansionist or imperial tendencies of the United States were present from its earliest days. American political leaders, he writes, believed that the doors to economic expansion had to be open in order to secure U.S. democratic institutions. They couldn't imagine the American people living within the limits of their own resources. And the American people, he goes on to say, were thoroughly on board with this program. Whether we are talking about farmers or workers or the middle class, they all shared an ideology of informal imperialism. Empire, in a word, was seen as essential to the good life. In particular, the Founding Fathers regarded territorial expansion as key to keeping American society from congealing into a European class system. But there was a price to be paid for all of this, and it was not a small one. For what the frontier did, according to Williams, was take us away from what was essential–a fair and just society, organized along the lines of democratic socialism. Instead, there was a collective (if unconscious, I would add) decision to run away from this, and thus to run away from (real) life. In The Contours of American History (1961), Williams puts it this way:

Americans...have the chance to create the first truly
democratic socialism in the world. That opportunity
is the only real frontier available to Americans in the
second half of the twentieth century. If they...acted
upon the...intelligence and morality and courage
that it would take to explore and develop that frontier,
then they would finally have broken the chains of their
own past. Otherwise, they would ultimately fall victims
to a nostalgia for their childhood.

I shall return to this theme of childhood in a moment. For now, let us be clear about the conundrum that Williams identified: the choice between individual capital accumulation, or obsession with private property, and a more equitable capital distribution, or concern for the collective well-being of the nation. Williams traced this fundamental conflict back to England's Glorious Revolution (1688), by which time it was clearly understood that expansion was the only way to reconcile these opposing ways of life. In the American context, it took the form of an addiction to the frontier as utopia. As a result, there really was no positive vision of commonwealth. In the nineteenth century, says Williams, the focus was on expansion, pure and simple, at the cost of social and personal values. To put it bluntly, Americans have always relied on expansion to escape from domestic problems, and resorted to violence and aggression when this failed. Williams was fond of quoting James Madison on the subject: "Extend the sphere and you have made it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens."

According to Williams, then, the United States was caught in a kind of balancing act, in which outward movement–territorial conquest, market expansion, or war–became the default solution to all of its domestic ills. Empire would reconcile avarice and morality. You defuse demands for a redistribution of wealth by opening up "surplus social space." "We have been playing hide-and-seek for two centuries," he wrote in 1976; "limbo is our Way of Life."

Still, it is not clear what Americans are running from; it is probably deeper than democratic socialism, and at one point Williams argues that we are afraid of our own violence. Whatever this dark presence is, it has to run very deep, because as Williams shows, anything that stood in the way of expansion--Native Americans, the Confederacy, the Soviet Union, and finally the Third World--was regarded as "evil," unnatural, beyond redemption. Looking inward, looking at ourselves, was never a serious option, and examining the structures that underlay its behavior was never America's forte.

Before we can ascertain what Americans are running from, however, it will be necessary to get some idea of how they wound up in a state of internal conflict and competition in the first place. On the surface, it seems almost as though aggression, narcissism, and imperialism are literally woven into the country's DNA; as though, in the United States, life and greed are synonymous. The shift from a European-based sense of commonwealth to a me-first free-for-all dates primarily from the 1790s.* Until that time, according to Joyce Appleby, the idea of a greater good and a system of reciprocal obligations still carried some weight, and the word "virtue" was defined as a commitment to those things. Under the impact of the ideas of Adam Smith and the Scottish enlightenment, however, this began to change. The new Newtonian-based philosophy held that societies were collections of individuals ("atoms"), and that the pursuit of profit on the part of each of these entities combined–i.e. the collective result of individual self-interest–would be the prosperity of the whole. "Virtue," in other words, had by 1800 come to mean personal success in an opportunistic environment; looking out for Number One.

The result was that the glue that had held colonial life together began to disintegrate, for individual greed is basically an antiglue. Historically speaking, according to Gordon Wood, this constituted a complete transformation in human social relations, amounting to a very new type of society. One might even call it an antisociety. Contemplating these developments in the early years of the Republic, the Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush was forced to conclude that the nation "would eventually fall apart in an orgy of selfishness." The reality of contemporary America would undoubtedly shock Dr. Rush, were he to return from the grave, but it probably would not surprise him.

(As an aside I offer the following anecdote: a friend of mine who happens to be the dean of a major medical school in the United States read Appleby's work some time ago and was very impressed with it. But he discovered that whenever he tried to discuss her thesis with members of the faculty, their eyes would glaze over within thirty seconds and they would change the subject. I believe this attests to the massive brainwashing prevalent in the United States, such that even the nation's most intelligent citizens literally cannot tolerate even a casual examination of the country's structural premises.)

In any case, the U.S. Census Bureau declared the frontier closed in 1890; there was no more unclaimed land to be had. Having stolen half of Mexico in 1848, the United States really couldn't now lay claim to the rest of that country, so it began looking farther afield for new conquests. Thus, the Spanish-American War of 1898, and the formulation of the Open Door Policy in 1899, which asserted the importance of overseas economic expansion. Yet the real frontier of the so-called Progressive Era was internal, which is to say, technological--a conception that has lasted down to the present day. For this development we need to move on to the third figure on our list, Albert Borgmann, whose Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (1984) takes the work of William Appleman Williams to the next level.

In some ways, Borgmann was anticipated by the historian David Potter, who recognized (in People of Plenty, 1954) that Frederick Jackson Turner's famous "frontier thesis," while correct, didn't have to be conceived of in strictly geographical terms. The psychic frontier in the United States, he said, is based on the interaction between technology and the environment, and hence the promised expansion is without limit. This had actually been made explicit by the first presidential scientific adviser, Vannevar Bush, in his definitive essay of 1945: Science the Endless Frontier. But the basic structural mechanism–expansion as a way of mitigating domestic conflict–was in place long before Potter or Bush arrived on the scene. "Commodity expansion," to coin a phrase, was merely the old structure of Manifest Destiny mapped onto a different field; and as Borgmann demonstrates, it "works" even better. For there isn't, and there will not be, an end to the gizmos and gadgets the consumer society can crank out. Where there are now ten varieties of razor blades, there will be twenty tomorrow, and fifty a year from now--all "new and improved," with advertising serving to convince us that all of this junk is essential to our lives. From Milton Friedman to Condoleezza Rice, drowning in crap is regarded as "freedom," with virtually no dissent on the subject from the American people.

Here is a definition of democracy provided by a former American ambassador to Brazil (1961-62), Lincoln Gordon, in his book A New Deal for Latin America:

True democracy...is the regime of continuous social
revolution. I use the word revolution to mean a
process of structural change in society—an alteration
in the pattern of social class, in the social mobility
of individuals and their children, in the educational
structure, in methods of production, standards of living,
and the distribution of income, and in attitudes toward
relationships among individuals, business and other
private organizations, and the State.

Sounds pretty good, right? A far cry from the stagnant, class-based society of medieval Europe, to be sure. But what it amounts to in practice–if we leave aside the reference to distribution of income, which strikes an odd note here–is the society Joyce Appleby described and Benjamin Rush decried: an endless jockeying for position and power. And what fuels this social mobility, as Borgmann recognized, is constant invention and innovation, so that the lower class believes it can acquire the goods and lifestyle of the middle class, and the middle class believes it can acquire the same of the upper class. In Dark Ages America I wrote:

The privileges of the ruling class are exercised in
consonance with popular goals. Rich and poor both
want the same things, and in this way commodities
...are the stabilizing factors of technological societies.
Social inequality favors the advancement of the reign
of technology, in other words, because it presents a
ladder of what can be attained through technology.
This results in an equilibrium that can be maintained
only by the production of more and more commodities.
The less affluent must be able, at least in theory, to
catch up with the more affluent. Hence politics remains
without substance, a realm from which the crucial
dimensions of life, the core values, are excluded.

In reality, this "escalator" of social mobility is an illusion. Very little wealth "trickles down," and the statistics are quite clear on this point: the vast majority of the population never escape from the class into which they were born. But the combination of techno-economic expansion, and stories of the "self-made man," are sufficient to keep the lid on the conflict and hostility that are generated by endless competition. Meanwhile, our lives are filled with toys as substitutes for friendship, community, craftsmanship, quality, an equitable distribution of wealth, and an enlightened citizenry as opposed to a large collection of child-consumers who have literally no idea as to what genuine political debate is about. "Growth" is all...but to what end? This is the question that almost never gets asked.

The matter of children and their toys brings us to the fourth author, Ariel Dorfman, who formulated the concept of "soft power" long before Joseph Nye of Harvard University coined the phrase. What Dorfman asked was this: What makes American culture so popular, worldwide? Why is everyone attracted to its omnipresent symbols--Mickey Mouse, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, blue jeans, American sitcoms, and the like? What a paradox, that so many nations despise the United States while the citizens of those nations are literally addicted to American television programs. What, in short, is America's secret?

Dorfman is a Marxist, yet he surprised himself when he realized the decidedly non-Marxist answer to this question: "The way in which American mass culture reaches out to people may touch upon mechanisms embedded in our innermost being." In a word, the appeal is archetypal, transhistorical, and transcultural. For human beings are biologically programmed to respond to anything tinged with childhood. We seek to protect our young; we have tender feelings toward them. Mickey Mouse effectively joins power and infantilization, as does virtually all of American culture. That culture broadcasts a message of rejuvenation, a fountain of eternal youth, and (says Dorfman) "the possibility of conserving some form of innocence as one grows up." Whereas previously the U.S. Army was the means of exerting influence, the mass media now becomes a "peaceful" way of extending the American frontier. In fact, it is far superior to "hard power," because it enables Americans to retain an image of themselves as innocent, and to not have to recognize that this is just another version of imperial expansion. "America was able to project a universal category–childhood–onto alien cultures that were subjected politically and economically, and to seek in them infantile echoes, the yearning for redemption, innocence, and eternal life that, to one degree or another, are part of the constitution of all human beings." But when the American is shorn of adult faculties, adds Dorfman, and "handed solutions that suckle and comfort him...what is left is a babe, a dwindled, decreased human being."

The recent remarks of third-party candidate Ralph Nader, who could never manage to garner more than a tiny fraction of the vote, are quite relevant in this regard: the new generation of Americans, he said, “have little toys and gizmos that they hold in their hands. They have no idea of any public protest or activity. It is a tapestry of passivity." But the problem goes way beyond toys as a political substitute. It is all part of remaining a child, and of renewing or "reinventing" oneself through the latest electronic gadget or new consumer product that rolls off the assembly line. (One could include New Age gurus and philosophies in this list as well.) And even beyond this, the notion is that all of the world can be renewed by turning it into one huge market place, or toy store. What else, after all, is life about–for a child?

This, then, is the heart of "soft power," that empire and childhood are linked by an endless succession of new toys; a world in which every day is Christmas, and in which the neurosis of the United States becomes the power of the United States, as every last human being on the planet is sucked into this vortex. The American empire, in reality, is an Empire of Children.

We are now, I believe, in a position to answer the question of what all of this frenetic activity is designed to hide; what Americans are running away from. Toward the end of his life Williams wrote: "America is the kind of culture that wakes you in the night, the kind of nightmare that may [yet] possibly lead us closer to the truth." This is a haunting, if enigmatic, sentence. What truth, after all? Possibly, an example of what not to do. For the truth here is an emptiness at the center, to which is added a desire to never grow up. It should be obvious by now that the American definition of "progress" is little more than a joke, and that running away from the responsibilities of adulthood–including the construction of a society not based on endless consumption, competition, and expansion–could be the single greatest thread in American history. That there is a possible alternative history, and a very different type of progress, characterized (for example) by marginal figures such as Lewis Mumford or the late Jane Jacobs, is something Americans don't wish to contemplate, for alternatives to the life of running faster to get nowhere scare them. No, the expansion game, and the life of limbo, as Williams puts it, will continue until we hit a wall, and the game cannot be played any longer (although I suspect we shall be able to limp along with "crisis management" for two or three more decades). This game, of self-destruction and the destruction of others, will continue until there is no place for America to go except to the graveyard of failed empires. And as Williams suggested, violence is very likely part of the equation.

In the meantime, much of the world, ironically enough, will go on taking the United States as a model for development, ignoring the bankruptcy of this way of life. The sadness of it all was captured by Richard Easterlin in his incisive study, Growth Triumphant: "In the end, the triumph of economic growth is not a triumph of humanity over material wants; rather, it is the triumph of material wants over humanity." Once expansion fails, however, the jig will be up. Whether Americans will finally address the thing they've been hiding from all these years is another question altogether.

The widespread emulation of this model is thus a peculiarly depressing aspect of the whole drama. I wrote this article in Mexico City, and being late for a meeting with a friend, shut my notebook and grabbed a taxi to get to my rendezvous on time. The driver, a young man of about twenty-five years of age, stared into the screen of his cell phone or blackberry while weaving through traffic. As I glanced over his shoulder, I saw that he was looking at cartoons, of the kind I watched on television when I was seven years old. Finally, nervous that he was going to plow into the truck in front of us, I asked him whether watching a screen while driving wasn't just a little bit dangerous. "Oh no," he told me, never taking his eyes off the screen; "not a problem." Meanwhile, he overshot my destination, had to consult the map I had with me, and wound up charging me twice as much as the ride would normally cost. I wasn’t in the mood to get into a long argument with him in Spanish about it, so I paid the fare and wished him buen día. But I couldn't help thinking what a jackass this kid was, and, at the same time, that what was in his head regarding the components of a meaningful life was probably not very different from what was in the head of the president of any Mexican or American or (for that matter) Indian university or corporation. Clearly, the psychology of expand-and-hide spreads like cancer: "growth" über Alles.

We see, then, the picture of the United States that emerges when we look at it structurally. Put Williams, Appleby, Borgmann, and Dorfman together, and it is as though you are looking at America with X-ray eyes. "Freedom" and "Opportunity" are not what stand out, on this view. Rather, the X-ray vision reveals something much closer to disease, what has been called an "ideological pathology." Living in limbo, as Williams told us over and over again, cannot be prolonged indefinitely. Yet the real tragedy, in my view, is not one of American diplomacy but of willful ignorance. Is it likely, when the system finally unravels and the empire is a feeble shadow of its former self, that we (or the hegemon that replaces us) will have learned anything at all?

*This is not quite true. Walter McDougall, in Freedom Just Around the Corner (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), says we were a nation of hustlers (his word) from the get-go; and Richard Bushman documents this for eighteenth-century Connecticut in From Puritan to Yankee (New York: W.W. Norton, 1970).


Keith Berwick, review of Williams, The Contours of American History, in The William and Mary Quarterly, January 1963, pp. 144-46.

Paul Buhle and Edward Rice-Maximin, "War Without End," The Village Voice, 5 November 1991, p. 75.

Ariel Dorfman, The Empire's Old Clothes, trans. Clark Hansen (New York: Pantheon, 1983).

Greg Grandin, "Off Dead Center," The Nation, 1 July 2009.

Chris Hedges, "Nader Was Right," posted on http://www.truthdig.com/, 10 August 2009.

William Fletcher Thompson, Jr., review of Williams, The Contours of American History, in The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Winter 1962-63, pp. 139-40.

Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” lecture to the American Historical Association, Chicago, 1893; reprinted in numerous anthologies and available at http://www.historians.org/pubs/archives/Turnerthesis.htm

Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1993).