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  • A pensioner shouts slogans during an anti-austerity demonstration in Athens April 1, 2015.

    A pensioner shouts slogans during an anti-austerity demonstration in Athens April 1, 2015. | Photo: Reuters

Published 1 April 2015
Movement-building would seem the major order of the day.

Like many who write for ZNet, Telesur English, and other Left venues, I suspect, I often feel torn between (A) more activist and positive, change and action-oriented energies (relating to the question of “what is to be done?”) on one hand and (B) more intellectual, academic, Mandarin-like and critical, often outwardly negative interests (relating to “what’s wrong with present-day society?”) on the other hand.  I am aware and have recently argued in Z Magazine (“Beyond False Dichotomies,” April 2015) that tendency A and tendency B are not necessarily or inherently opposed to one another and should be understood as complimentary parts – like diagnosis and prescription in health care – of Left political culture. At the same time, it has long struck me that that Left intellectual culture in the United States is often quite excessively weighted towards A at the expense of B.    

A recent provocative essay by Tom Engelhardt on TomDispatch, the left Website Engelhardt manages, sparked the tension between these two tendencies for me.  Engelhardt’s commentary details five core characteristics of the current US social and political system that in his opinion combined to have create “A New American Order” – a “grim new system” of authoritarian state-capitalist rule:

1.”1% Elections”: a big money, dollar-drenched electoral process in which candidates from the two dominant parties cannot hope to win or compete without giant campaign contributions from super-opulent oligarchs and elite corporate and financial interests.

2. The privatization of basic governmental functions, including much of the nation’s giant military and national security apparatus.

3. The “de-legitimization of Congress and the presidency,” both now held in shockingly low regard by the preponderant majority of Americans, in chilling contrast to the high popularity enjoyed by the military inside the US.

4. The emergence of a gargantuan national security state as a de facto “fourth branch of the federal government.”

5. The “demobilization of the American people,” reflected in depressing “mass acquiescence” to “the grim new system” – a surrender that is itself a defining aspect of the current dark and different era (T. Engelhardt, “The New American Order,”TomDispatch, March 19, 2015).

What exactly is this “new order?” Engelhardt says that he does not feel qualified to give it a name.  The main thing for him is for us all to admit “that something new is afoot.”  “Call it what you want,” Engelhardt writes, “but call it something.  Stop pretending it isn’t happening.” Stop acting like this is American democracy and/or plutocracy (or some contradictory combination of the two) “as usual.” 

Engelhardt’s reflection sure got the Mandarin wheels turning in the more academic regions of my brain. (That’s hardly surprising, I suppose:  I recently published a book on the contemporary US state-capitalist order, a volume concerned with many of the issues Engelhardt raises.) A number of questions and problems flashed across my mind after reading Engelhardt’s  piece. I was struck, to begin, with the contradiction between (I) his admonition to “call it what you want but call it something” and (ii) his insistence that we call it “something new.”  There is, after all, a respectable case that could be made that Engelhardt’s “new American order” is really the natural progression and denouement – a gloomy and ongoing culmination – of longstanding, interrelated, and interwoven US evils, including capitalism, corporatism, racism, state repression, imperialism, militarism, patriarchy, and (I would add along with other leftists in the “parecon” mode) coordinator-ism (the rule of managers, professionals, and other privileged members of the “coordinator class”).  Has quantity changed to quality and bred a terrifying new (as yet unnamed) system within the womb of the old?  Maybe…

Eighty-four years ago, the great American philosopher John Dewey observed that “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” Dewey rightly prophesized that U.S. politics would stay that way as long as power resided in “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by command of the press, press agents, and other means of publicity and propaganda.”  In the summer of 2011, in the wake of the grotesque elite-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis, when the leaders of both of the major parties agreed to slash government expenditures in standard defiance of majority citizen support for increased public investment to address mass unemployment, the leading US Left intellectual and Dewey fan Noam Chomsky provided a chilling update. “Since the 1970s,” Chomsky observed, “[Dewey’s] shadow has become a dark cloud enveloping society and the political system. Corporate power, by now largely financial capital, has reached the point that both political organizations, which now barely resemble traditional parties, are far to the right of the population on the major issues under debate.” Is the move from “shadow cast on society” (probably a bit mild at the time) to “dark cloud enveloping society and the political system” part of the rise of a “new order”?

Along with the other changes that Engelhardt mentions – and additional developments that he does not (see below) – it could well be.  

Engelhardt offers no precise dates, no formal or even informal periodization for his “new order.” Some of what he describes seems best pegged to the onset of the corporate-neoliberal era in the early to mid-1970s and the related authoritarian response of US power elites to popular and democratic protest during the 1960s.  More of Engelhardt’s account seems to date from the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.  In any event, the question of  periodization would seem relevant matter given Engelhardt’s claim of a novel era.   

Are the American people living under the current New or Second Gilded Age really as “acquiescent” and “demobilized” as Engelhardt claims, citing his friend the liberal historian Steve Fraser on the significant popular protests that rocked the nation during the original Gilded Age of the late 19th Century?  My sense is that he and Fraser underestimate contemporary popular surrender and overestimate past popular resistance. As I argued two or so years ago in an essay criticizing the brilliant Marxian historian Perry Anderson’s glib dismissal of popular resistance in the contemporary US, there’s a lot more protest and organizing going on beneath the headlines than typically meets the Mandarin eye of the intellectual class.

If we are in and under a new order/era that deserves a name, why not mention some of the terms and phrases that have been advanced for some time, some more rigorous than others: corporate plutocracy, neoliberalism, neoliberal authoritarianism (Henry Giroux);  “inverted totalitarianism” (political scientist Sheldon Wolin, who puts a significant central emphasis on the “demobilization” of the US populace), “corporate-managed democracy” (Wolin again), imperial “polyarchy” (sociologist William I. Robinson’s Marxian-Gramscian adaptation of the term from liberal political science), oligarchy (even liberal intellectuals increasingly describe the US as one these days), financialization, and the like.

I have in previous essays explained why I do not think the term fascism is usefully or accurately applied to the current US order.  Still,  Engelhardt practically dares certain Leftists to respond with that descriptive and that he might want to explain why he rejects that phrase.  Those who think it applies have a depressing number of parallels to cite.

Going with the premise of a “new US order,” I am struck by the significant quantity and quality of things relevant to the possible rise of  a new regime that Engelhardt leaves out of his essay.  The following list of such missing topics is unfair, perhaps, but some of these issues and factors certainly deserve mention in any serious discussion of such a new order:  

  • The intimately related processes of capitalist globalization, financialization, and US deindustrialization.

  • The multiple, interrelated, and many-sided ways in which giant corporations and financial institutions control US politics and policy beyond just election funding.

  • The authoritarian politics and culture of neoliberalism, consistent with the dramatic expansion of the “right hand of the state” (Pierre Bourdieu) – the parts of government that distribute wealth and power further upward, repress dissent, fight wars, and punish the poor and working classes.

  • The mass structural unemployment of many millions of “surplus Americans” (Left US sociologist Charles Derber’s term for the significant slice of the US population that has been removed by capital from “productive engagement” with the economy).

  • The remarkable expansion of “racially disparate” (racist) mass incarceration (a form of post-industrial warehousing of racially branded “surplus Americas” among other things) and felony marking (what law professor Michelle Alexander has memorably labelled “The New Jim Crow”) that has accompanied the neoliberal era, turning the “land of freedom” into the world’s leading prison state.

  • The ever-deepening concentration of corporate media ownership and the expansion and spread of mass media’s technical delivery and surveillance capacities.

  • The atomizing and alienating impact of digital and online technologies, communications, “social networks” and obsessions.

  • The deadening and fragmenting power and reach of “identity politics” in the neoliberal era.

  • The rise of the neoliberal and administrative university and the near eclipse of “higher education” as a space for resistance to the power of Big Business and the capitalist and imperial state.

  • The remarkable expansion of the reach of the American Empire in the post-Cold War era.

  • Last but not least, the ever growing and more imminent danger of eco-cide, the decline of livable ecology under the pressure of capitalism's relentless drive for growth and accumulation – an issue that threatens to drown out everything else progressives care about (maybe the “new order” should called “The Age of Exterminism”)

But this is all my Mandarin-side talking, the tendency B I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. The other, activist side (tendency A) tends after long to shrug and say “who cares?” One could spend years, decades, an entire career trying to determine the extent to which the current period of capitalist class rule in which one resides has passed into a new stage or “order” – and to figure out what exactly that new or ongoing (but always changing) old order should be called. Isn’t it sufficient from a “what is to be done” perspective to understand that this order is fundamentally opposed to democracy, to justice, to community, to the common good, to a decent future – indeed to life itself.  While intellectuals – many with decent and genuinely democratic intentions – devote the lions’ share of their energy on diagnosis and labeling of current and past evils, dark realities urgently require action now and in the very near future.  As the socialist philosopher Istvan Meszaros noted 14 years ago in a short book titled Socialism or Barbarism, “we are running out time:”

“Many of the problems we have to confront—from chronic structural unemployment to the major political/military conflicts [of our time], as well as the ever more widespread ecological destruction in evidence everywhere—require concerted action in the very near future. The timescale of such action may perhaps be measured in a few decades but certainly not in centuries. We are running out of time…The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself…If I had to modify Rosa Luxembourg’s words, in relation to the dangers we now face, I would add to ‘socialism or barbarism’ this qualification: ‘barbarism if we are lucky.’ For the extermination of humanity is the ultimate concomitant of capital’s destructive course of development.”

Movement-building would seem the major order of the day.  If reflections like Engelhardt’s (and mine in this essay) can help spark and inform such movements, that’s all for the good. Whether they can or not, more us who like to write and speak about what’s wrong with society need to come down from our ivory towers, writing cellars, and online outposts to get our hands dirty in the making of a democratic, just, peaceful, and sustainable world beyond “capital’s destructive course of development.”

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

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