On the necessity of blindness

Star Gazer (2004), by Hans Haacke

Star Gazer (2004), by Hans Haacke

Considering how constitutional rigidity squeezes the lifeblood out of political democracy, one would think that the people would be denouncing it at every opportunity, marching in the streets and cheering lustily as radicals denounce this dictatorship of the past.  But they’re not.  Thanks to the principle of equal state representation, a voter in Wyoming has something like 66 times the clout of one in California in U.S. senatorial elections, yet Americans seem oblivious.  Not even Californians seem concerned.  Considering that Wyoming is 93.5 percent white according to the latest census data while nearly 60 percent of Californians are Hispanics, Asians, blacks, or other minorities, one would think that the NAACP, the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, and other such groups would be hopping up and down in anger and frustration.  But they’re not.  By granting each state a vote based on the total number of senators and representatives it sends to Washington, the electoral college multiplies Wyoming’s clout in presidential elections by a factor of three.  So why aren’t Californians, New Yorkers, Pennsylvanians, etc. rioting in the streets?  American democracy would be a good deal stronger if they overturned police cars and smashed shop windows in protest.  Yet perfect calmness prevails.  Why?

The answer has to do with the nature of perception.  People do not see individually but collectively, which is to say that they see only what the prevailing social system wants them to see.  A speeding bus may be approaching, but if the social order’s survival depends on its nonexistence, then it will vanish as far as popular perceptions are concerned.  The continuation of the U.S. constitutional system requires a similar vanishing act in which the growing constitutional breakdown is made to disappear as well.  Massive corruption on Capitol Hill, political paralysis, government of, by, and for the rich — even if people notice such things, the system demands that they see them as inevitable, ineradicable, an unvoidable fact of life, and so they do.  Under the ancien régime, the people allowed themselves to be dazzled by the court at Versailles.  Today they are hypnotized by “American Idol,” reality TV, or by the latest celebrity scandal.  But the effect is the same.  Their attention is distracted or they’re too busy to notice, which only insures that the problem will fester and grow.

But terms like “system” and “social order” are terribly ahistorical and abstract, so let us try to be as specific as we can.  The reigning system at this stage of historical development is capitalism, a unified politico-economic system based on the mobilization of social forces for the purpose of private accumulation.  When capitalism was in its infancy, private and public wealth did not seem so very different.  In places like New England and the Ohio Valley, farmers, tradesmen, and incipient manufacturers wanted public schools, an educated workforce, roads,  bridges, etc., and they also wanted a democratic (or at least republican) system that would spur on the ambitions of as much of the population as possible.  Private advancement rested on social progress and vice versa.  But with the great industrial battles that erupted after the Civil War, the two began ripping apart so that, by the 1890s, they seemed like separate armed camps.  Consumer capitalism, which can be dated from either the creation of the Federal Reserve system in 1913 or V-E Day in 1945, was an attempt to overcome class conflict via the growth of domestic markets and the cult of individual prosperity.  Workers would be transformed into consumers, homeowners, and petty entrepreneurs.  As William Levitt, the developer of Levittown, once put it, “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist.  He has too much to do.”  The system succeeded triumphantly during the golden age of postwar capitalism (1948-73), but then began to fall apart under the weight of industrial and urban decay, technological stagnation, and growing imbalances in finance and trade.  The hyper-consumerism of the Reagan period seemed to set things right for a time, but at the cost of a hypertrophied financial sector, a growing mountain of debt, and “the commodification of everything.”  With 9/11, hyper-consumerism and authoritarianism were joined so that not only were Americans required to shop till dropped, but to “watch what they say, watch what they do,” in the immortal words of White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.  Thinking was reclassified as an adjunct of spending and owning.  Politics shrank so that private acquisition could continue to expand.

This is the political order that has come crashing down since 2008.  It depended not only on a growing number of toys and entertainments to keep Americans distracted from the real problems facing their society, but on growing political fragmentation as well.  Rather than parties, America has a growing number of individual actors participating in the free-for-all in Washington.  Down below, it has some 89,000 state and local governments, everything from school boards and township committees to flood plain districts, mosquito control commissions, and God knows what else, all autonomous, self-perpetuating, jealous of their rights, and willing to sue at the drop of a hat.  Each is a setting for all sorts of comedy and drama, as anyone who has ever sat through a board of education meeting will know.

The result is a deafening cacophony in which anything of importance is lost in the din.  It’s been going on for so long that people despair of making any sense of it.  Indeed, they assume that it’s natural, an unavoidable side-effect of popular democracy, and all that the individual can do is cover his ears and hide in the corner.  Constitutional change becomes not only impossible, but downright unimaginable.  The  system thus hides itself away behind a thicket of complexity that it has helped create.

But if capitalism is collapsing, how about the political-constitutional superstructure that holds it up — is that collapsing as well?  The answer is yes and no.  On one hand, the legal structure seems as unshakable as ever.  But, on the other, the political culture is transforming before our eyes.  The stolen election of 2000 and the Global War on Terror inaugurated in 2001 marked a giant step in the direction of authoritarianism and militarization.  Millions of Americans protested during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, but since then they seem to have gotten the wind knocked out of them.  Guantánamo is still open, drone warfare has spread to four countries besides Afghanistan and Iraq, and pressure is building for intervention in the Syrian civil war, yet protest is nil.  Republicans are using their margin of control in the House and the federal judiciary to push the government to the right, and yet people seem befuddled.  In a recent book review, the Times‘s Michiko Kakutani noted that “Obama’s resounding victory in last fall’s election” has “quickly give[n] way to … gridlock and dysfunction.”  As to why, no one seems to know — because the system does not want them to know.

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