How can ‘commonwealth’ provide an original alternative to narcissistic, acquisitive economics and politics?

Preparing for coming back to the USA in November 2016, I recalled that the first time that I visited was March 1972, at the height of the Vietnam War, amidst the Great Society programmes such as  Head Start, which I volunteered on in Kansas City, Missouri. It was a time when working and middle class incomes were good, people were prosperous, but have fallen in real terms ever since.

So I asked an old friend, Barton Kunstler, what he thought of the current situation and this is what he wrote about how I could get more informed.(Quite a book list!) I thought  was well  worth sharing, as his insights helped my steep learning curve:

“ Counterpunch has a web site, while and have many good articles. Our Massachusetts senator, Elizabeth Warren, is the most outspoken public figure on banks and government, even more extraordinary as a first-term Senator. The thinkers and doers are numerous, especially in the area of alternative food sources. I see food as the US millennials’ keystone issue from which they attack corporatism, environmental degradation, etc., which is the class Millennial combination of Baby Boomer idealism and the pragmatism of so-called Gen Xers. In any case, their strength is their energy, pragmatism, idealism, skepticism, and their beautiful minds. The downside to their approach is that  the strictly political side is often distorted by being misinformed, sentimentalized (spikes in concern for feel-good quality of life issues that are important but often isolated from meaningful political context), and frankly, overly simplified.

How the minnows repelled a shark, by Ken Sprague
The fish and a shark:  Ken Sprague

“We can see all of this in the Bernie Sanders campaign which I view as having been a wonderful, almost entirely positive political experience for a nation in desperate need of such. Bernie has pledged to continue the fight for the issues he has raised and that is precisely what we need. The so called “Bernie revolution” will not be furthered by young people turning away from the election or further political engagement. I can deconstruct Hillary’s record with the best of them but she is a rational human being who understands politics and if one disagrees with her (as I do and many other Sanders supporters), then elect her and other Democrats and hold their feet to the fire. This is one more area where the social three-folding idea is helpful: by distinguishing the boundaries between activism in the three spheres. Some issues are primarily cultural but when advances are made they are seen as great political advances when in fact the political and economic power elites can adapt to liberal advances, for instance, in regard to legalization of marijuana, gay marriage, and transgender use of bathrooms.

The social media, digitized aspect is very powerful, obviously, in terms of both the younger generation’s approach to political and economic change and a more general social evolution, but it can also be over-stated. These kids still have strong friendships, great empathy, and so on, but the mediating impact of the on-screen life is profoundly unsettling, even to many of them. Yet as the Obama campaign showed so well, and in doing so was only the tip of the iceberg, public discourse in all realms is being transferred to the digital environment and the implications are vast and unreadable.

If real change is going to come, it will have to include those cyber-channels, as it has been in the mis-named Arab Spring, Occupy, and most happily, Bernie’s campaign. The Millennial generation in the U.S. grew up under the grotesque presidency of George W. Bush. Obama initially inspired but ultimately disappointed them by his lack of vision and his inability, even in his first two years, to marshall his political mandate, although in the past year or so he has somewhat redeemed his promise. Nonetheless, eight more years of war, Guantanamo, a weak and shaky economic recovery, and runaway corporate and financial power has disillusioned most young people on politics to a degree that older activists have trouble grasping, however iconoclastic we may have been.

My read on the US is that it is an absolute singularity in terms of historical conditions, not just “unique” as all societies arguably are, but utterly singular, operating according to laws that no one has ever observed before. The combination of wealth, technology, complexity, size, and military power alone—the sort of inorganic variables—would make it so. But the organic variables are toxic. By those I mean the distinctly cultural and historical qualities embedded in human experience: the anti-intellectualism, medieval religiosity, racial animus, swaggering self-image of the self-made gun-toting male. Also: celebrity culture which is really about everyone being their own celebrity and their identity being the primary object of worship; the decline in schools and public discourse; the way the right wing has managed to “tar and feather” the notion of a common good or common-wealth”; the sheer narcissism—weird in itself but how it has utterly saturated the political and economic functions; and so much more.

Our unique position after WW II, when we were the sole engine of economic and military power, the heroic colossus that saved the world (in our minds), gave rise to the American myth of ever-expanding personal and national wealth. The de-regulation of the stock market and financial operations shifted the notion of wealth from affording the luxurious counterparts of items that everyone had—luxury cars, a house valued at maybe 10 times the average, a selection of excellent suits or gowns—to a horizon-less greed for the next power of ten: the ten-millionaire realizes how limited they are beside the 9-figure honcho, and once one can see the billionaire brand up ahead, one must achieve that. With the disparities in wealth the system begins to fracture and the values shift towards the narcissistic self-worship not of wealth but of oneself as a modern Sardanopolis. Not to mention the real cost as no economy can produce enough wealth to support that kind of greed without sucking dry the poor and middle class.

Globalization hit the US particularly hard, especially as we were so used to being isolated from its effects given three oceans to our east, west, and north (Canada is the northern ocean! haha), and poor broken Mexico and the fragemented Caribbean to the south. Today global events really matter. Even during Vietnam, when I was a very argumentative person, so many people would angrily tell me they were tired of us being pushed around by little countries and we should therefore bomb the hell out of Vietnam. I would ask for examples of these terrible bullies. Needless to say, they didn’t know of any actual cases or they’d rant about Castro and Cuba.

Is it possible that the American experience simply was designed to make people stupid? People who are intrinsically nicer or more delicate than I am go on and on about the middle class feeling betrayed and abandoned, etc., and I do understand how such devastating blows to one’s social and psychological self-worth can lead to the Tea Party or Trump. But that’s still too kind because face it, these movements are saturated with racism and with irrational attachments to politicians and policies that run contrary to their members’ self-interest. There is a simmering violence just below the surface and a mad infatuation the phallic compensation of firearms that is terrifying, especially when one poll indicates millions of Americans may go to the polls carrying a gun, though I’m skeptical of that. So it’s hard for me to adopt the condescension of those who would explain away these proto-fascist (I no longer use the term “crypto-fascist” as the “crypto” part seems outdated) reactions as largely reflexive. We are human beings and we have minds in order to avoid self-destructive, pathogenic behaviors.

At any rate, why does societal uncertainty result in such a bizarre set of responses as we see in the US today? Perhaps we are a singularity with a lack of models or orientating “memes” to guide us in such circumstances. Thus people who do initially have well-functioning brains with a strong potential to cultivate a mind wind up desperately seeking validation from the most “amygdala-friendly” sources: the repetitive rants of a Hitler or Rush Limbaugh or the venting of a Trump. In time, this does have a neurological effect, especially as there’s so little in the culture to counteract it. The myelin sheathes around the neuronal paths that feed amygdalic gratification grow thicker. Instead of many branching dendrites the brain is dominated by one or two superhighways leading direct to the red button. Violence and genocide are the result of the button being pushed over and over. (I use “amygdala” advisedly, as a schematic short-hand for whatever aspects of the brain are drawn into this closed-loop). Part of the disdain for Hillary, and the disappointment in Obama, is that people want authentic, clarion voices that can lay out a vision not only of hope but of effective action (Occupy). Most politicians can’t offer it because that’s not who they are. Why is Obama so adamant about the Trans Pacific Pact? It’s a horrible idea but his agenda, aside from wanting everyone to be nicer, splits off from those of most Americans on that sort of globalist issue.

I’m reading a great book that just came out, “White Trash” by Nancy Isenberg. I’m on page 50 and it’s already had an impact on me. \Two others are Takaki’s “A Different Mirror” about the immigrant experience, already 20 years old, and a book that’s been around about 30 years, Beyond Geography by Frederick Turner (not the late 19th c. Frederick Turner).

A book that was co-written/edited by a Stonybrook professor that I bought when it came out in the very early 70s is Rothenberg and Qasha’s “America: A Prophecy”. It’s a collection of primary sources that does something of what Galeano did in his books, presenting the sources in such a way as to create an alternative narrative of American history, unearthing hidden currents and showing what might have been and, at the time it came out, what people thought might still be. Speaking of currents, one of the all-time masterpieces of American historical writing is a book that was sidelined by the Cold War backlash against all the progressive scholarship of the 20s and 30s (even in the field of classics): Vernon Parrington, “Main Currents in American Thought”, which I have in the form of one of my father’s old college text books, though it’s not a “textbook”. Parrington presents diverse voices from the scope of US history with a brilliant commentary on each. It’s a unique, profound book and as a traveling companion in America, as good as a book can be.

The “self” itself is in play in US society, which is not only unique but still a pacesetter in many cultural developments world-wide. The self has devolved\ from an identification with “god” and cosmos and tribal or civic affiliations, etc. over the course of millennia. In the post-Marcuse world (one way to reference it), the self has become a profoundly unstable notion of an identity. The individual self is, when in balance with more extensive, “inorganic” frameworks, a wonderful engine of creativity and guardian of human dignity and social justice. In narcissistic contexts, the self cannot bear the full burden of all that is demanded of us as members of a complex society. We may worship the idea of ourselves, spend much of our income in enhancing the self and its image and most of our mental energy thinking about it, but the energy expended is a measure of the anxiety this multi-tasking selfhood inflicts upon us.

In addition, there is something essential in human beings’ projection of the ego into and through the things we can control—mates, territory, possessions—and our deities usually reflect something of th nature of what we admire and how we control it (mingled with the natural forces we cannot control). So a weather god is also a god of laws that protect property and state power, or the post-Newtonian deity is basically a clockmaker whose work embraces nature and the human mind. In a consumerist, market-driven society the self and the deity both become dispersed through our objects, with some, such as houses and cars, most eminent in the pantheon, but all in all, the deity and the ego are fragmented and fractured throughout countless objects. This is interesting as the deity who is chopped up and distributed among the community in a feast or other fable-like catastrophe is as old as myth.

Anyway, this hits us from two directions at once: anxiety over each piece of ourselves out there (he stole a cookie from the store, he deserved to be shot!) and anxiety over the hollowness at the core of being. But we have entered a new era in which the proliferative self-image is taking precedence over the objects. Hence “information is power”, “quantum physics is about information, not energy”, etc. All nice sounding concepts but in the popular agora it means that the construction of a data-rich image of one self (see all the high-tech product ads for the idealized image of cutting-edge, liberated, gorgeous (of course!), people all living on the same screens using the same software) becomes the ultimate product. This is obvious in politics but is more insidious in human relationships and in all manner of exchange, such as currency, commerce, and communication. In the end, this leads people to grasp at the most illogical, irrational, amygdala-driven images, the Trump or the Militia Defender of the Republic or the “I’m not Left or Right, I’m Middle of the Road” vacuity, or just an unending stream of violent or trivial media images or actual acts of violence themselves.


How the minnows repelled a shark, by Ken Sprague
How the minnows repelled a shark, by Ken Sprague

The notion of “commonwealth” seems to me to have immense potential because it is far older, with a much richer history and legacy, than acquisitive economics and politics. Even the US militia movement resonates with it on some level. Black and Hispanic and Asian cultures, not to mention Native American, are still largely committed to it. It offers the vocabulary and the genetic and tribal resonance to offset, to some degree at least, current ideologies and compulsions. It is also, oddly enough, encouraged by the cyber-social-media revolution, an irony so massive it can define our civilization for the next century or so if it can survive that long. It is also squarely in the mind-set of the Millennial generation.