'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Confessions of a Situational Nihilist (Part 1) 

A week or so ago, catherine posted a comment to the effect that visiting this site made her feel like turning on the gas. I was tempted to construe the remark as backhanded Goth praise, but the context suggested otherwise.

During the presidential campaign, I encountered this more often, exhortations from local political activists that I was too pessimistic, too dismissive of the prospects for social change as a result of Obama's victory. Strangely, they don't say this to me much anymore.

But catherine points towards some fair questions. Am I just incorrigibly nihilistic or just a situational one? And, if the latter, what would induce to become more optimistic?

Acknowledging that reliance upon my self-analysis is challenging proposition, this is my response. I would consider myself a situational nihilist because of my perception of prevailing social conditions. Unlike partisan political activists, and many liberals, I don't believe that one can rely upon individuals to transform our lives. I consider this to be a form of personality cult politics, and one that invariably results in disappointment.

Accordingly, if you want to evaluate the prospects for a more humane form of capitalism, as given expression in the effort to implement health care reform, or, alternatively, the creation of a more compassionate collective world that rejects the deification of the market, you need to subjectively consider currents conditions.

For me, it is difficult to come to a positive conclusion. Radical movements, with the exception of those associated with environmentalism, are defunct in the US at this time, in marked contrast to other periods of US history, such as the 1820s and 1830s, as well as the 1880s all the way through to the end of the New Deal in 1947. Starting with Haymarket in 1886, there was a continuous, irrepressible radical effort to seize control of the US economy from capitalists and turn it over to the workers. Liberals, progressives and union organizers swam in the slipstream and pushed through numerous reforms, the eight hour day (originally, a proposal put forward by anarchists), better pay, Social Security and provisions related to workplace safety, among many.

One can truly say that they saved capitalism in this country because the Darwinian economic system that accompanied industrialization was unsustainable. But, things have changed for the worse. In the absence of the radicals, liberals, progressive and labor unions find themselves on the defensive, and, in the case of labor unions, fighting for their very survival. More than that, they find themselves incapable of crystallizing an alternative to the neoliberal order that has become more and more entrenched over the last 40 years. A combination of their success and the demoralization of the left brought about by Stalinism are probably responsible for creating the opportunity that neoliberals seized.

As a result, they now possess little ability to influence the political agenda. Examples are common. Despite a recognition that the US economy was about to enter a severe recession, they were incapable of putting forward a program that would have stopped the explosion in home foreclosures and directed federal deficit spending and stimulus funds towards with the greatest need and least responsibility for the spreading financial catastrophe. Instead, the bailout went forward, and, to this day, US economic policy remains one of buttressing the oligopolistic power of banks and brokerage houses like Goldman Sachs, J. P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America. Even a mildly reformist measure like permitting defaulting homeowners to renegotiate their implausble adjustible rate mortgages in bankrupty court failed in the Senate.

Much the same is now happening with health care reform. As with the bailout, a policy initially justified on the ground of assisting the general public is actually being pursued for the purpose of subsidizing health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and health care providers to an extent never before experienced. To their credit, some liberals, like those over at firedoglake, are fighting the good fight, and they should be praised for it, but, unfortunately, the timing is all wrong, just as it was for Flores Magon in Baja California in 1911.

And, of course, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, with no end in sight, with the very real possibilities that they will be expanded into Iran and Pakistan. So, you ask, what would reverse my pessimism into a cautious optimism? I will answer in a future post.

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