It’s Time for America to Reinvent itself Top to Bottom

17 Nov

But that’s not what I titled this month’s article at 3 Quarks Daily. I gave it a somewhat more provocative title, American Craziness: Where it Came from and Why It Won’t Work Anymore. The craziness is why America has to reinvent itself.

The core of my argument somes from an article I read in my freshman year at Johns Hopkins, “Certain Primary Sources and Patterns of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World” (full text online HERE). Parsons argues that life in Western nations generates a lot of aggressive impulses that cannot, however, be satisfied in any direct way. Why not? Because Western society is highly hierarchal and there is a great deal of aggression from superiors against inferiors, who cannot, however, respond in kind because to do so would be dangerous.

What, then, can those social inferiors do with their aggression? Well, they can let it rot their spirit and, eventually, their bodies as well. And that does happen. But they can also direct their aggression at external enemies. That happens as well.

This has certainly been the case in America. The Cold War was more of a psychic release mechanism for the nations involved – America included – than it was a collision of rational foreign policies East and West. But, as I point out in the 3QD piece, American had developed a sophisticated variation on the mechanism that was organized around slavery.

The institution of slavery in effect gave America an internal colony against which white Americans could direct their aggressive impulses. And when slavery was banished, institutionalized racism kept that colony in place. While the Civil Rights movement certainly changed the legal parameters of that social mechanism, and had real and beneficial effects in the world, the mechanism is still alive.

But, really, as I argue in the 3QD piece, this baroque contraption is ready to fall apart, hence the deadlock in America’s national politics.

I do something else in that piece, however, something of a more theoretical nature. I push Parsons’ argument a bit further than he did. As his title notes, he was arguing about Western nations, not nations in general. Yet anyone who finds his argument convincing can see that the mechanisms he describes are not confined to the West. They’re ubiquitous.

What if, I suggest, that mechanism is built into the fundamental cultural psychodynamics of the nation state? For Parsons there is the nation, on the one hand, and, incidentally, there is this strange psycho-cultural dynamic that happens in Western nations. In his argument that dynamic is not intrinsic to the nation-state, it is merely incidental. I argue that, on the contrary, that projective dynamic is intrinsic to the nation-state; it is how the nation state works.

And America isn’t working very well these days. We’ve got this enormous industrial-military establishment that drains resources from the productive economy and fights destructive and unwinnable wars against combatants who don’t play by the rules America’s military is used to. At the same time the gap between rich and poor has grown enormously over the past three decades, as has the prison population, with its disproportionately large population of black men – once again, the internal colony.

Meanwhile, the nation state is in trouble all over. While the Scots didn’t secede from the British Commonwealth, it’s probably only a matter of time before they do. Catalonia will probably figure out some way to exit from Spain and, as a recent article in Open Democracy argues, other peoples are itching to exit their respective nations. That article concludes:

The EU – and its member-states – should not rest on their laurels: these movements are not going to go away. Ironically, the EU appeared to have undercut independence demands in the 1990s by giving sustenance to the idea of a ‘Europe of the Regions’ whereby substate regions could sit alongside – or even replace – the states in the governance of Europe. However, when these hopes were dashed with the state-reifying bias of the Lisbon Treaty, nationalist movements across Europe radicalised their demands in favour of independence in a Europe of the States, as this now seemed to be the only way to get a seat on the top table of the Council of the EU.

The onus is now on the EU to figure out how internal secession within its borders might actually work – because there are now several wannabe states knocking on its doors. If the citizenry of these ‘stateless nations’ believe that their future is best secured with the trappings of statehood, the resulting configuration would be a ‘Europe’ fractured into a number of smaller territorial entities.

Ironically, this map of Europe may be very familiar to historians. Once upon a time, before the rise of the modern nation-state in the nineteenth century, Europe was a patchwork of city-states and small self-governing regions. ‘Small is beautiful’ was the mantra then; with the spread of independence referenda, are we seeing the natural return to this model?

It looks like a new world order is at hand. Once America steps out of the way – or is thrown off – we should see a rapid reshuffling of groups and institutions. There’s no way of predicting how that will shake out.

And it will shake out under the influence of global climate catastrophe.

We live in interesting times.


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