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Reflections on the End of the Republic

Rereading now the essays I have written for this and other papers in the Sixties, I am struck by the activistic, almost rationalistic, mood that permeates them. One only needed, or so it seemed, to call the President’s attention to the probable consequences of certain policies and show him the alternatives and their probable consequences, and he would choose a policy most likely to serve the national interest. I remember with wry amusement my strenuous and ultimately successful efforts in 1965 to bring my views on the Vietnam war to the attention of President Johnson—efforts undertaken in the naïve assumption that if power were only made to see the truth, it would follow that lead. President Johnson’s political reaction to this kind of responsible criticism is a matter of public record. His personal reaction was a systematic attempt, making full use of the informal powers of his office, to discredit and silence the voice of the dissenter. In that latter undertaking, he had the voluntary and sometimes enthusiastic assistance of eminent academic and institutional (for instance, Freedom House) supporters of his policy.

If one must admit the failure of these essays, in so far as they had an immediate political purpose, to influence political action, one cannot help noticing that the experience of their futility is not a private, personal matter but that it coincides with a collective experience of futility that pits American youth not only against American politics and society but against the modern world itself. And that American revolt, in turn, is but a national manifestation of a world-wide revulsion against the world as it is. The student revolt, expressing itself positively in attempts at creating a new culture and negatively in aimless destructiveness and revolutionary tantrums, has its most profound roots in the seeming meaninglessness of life as it is led throughout the world and, more particularly, in the United States. What does a man live for? What is his purpose in life? What is the meaning of death, which appears to wipe out that life as though it had never existed? What, in short, is the truth about the human condition?

Man has always had to ask such questions, and in the past religion, reason, and science have endeavored to lay his questioning to rest. Yet the different systems of truth provided by these three methods of comprehending man and his world have tended to cancel each other out. Religion did not pass the test of reason, science discredited the metaphysical systems engendered by reason and has given us mastery over a monstrous world that needs religion and reason to give it meaning. That world is doubly monstrous because it sacrifices human ends to technological means, as well as the needs of the many to the enrichment and power of the few, and thereby diminishes the stature of man and threatens his very existence.

The universities have provided us with that mastery over nature, but they have been unable to give it meaning and harness it to human purposes. They claim to be dedicated to the disinterested search for truth about man, society, and the universe. But they have transformed themselves, through the very dynamics of their undertakings, into gigantic and indispensable service stations for the powers-that-be, both private and public. They serve society but do not sit in judgment on it. The student who enters the university with those questions about man and the universe on his lips finds himself in the presence of an institution that, to paraphrase Tolstoy, is like a deaf man answering questions nobody has asked. The university pretends to be the mouthpiece of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But in actuality, in so far as what it presents as the truth is really true, it is largely irrelevant to what concerns man, young and old, and much of what it presents as truth is either not truth at all or truth only by accident, arrived at because it furnishes the powers-that-be with ideological rationalizations and justifications for the status quo.

When the student turns from the university as the pretended source of truth and experiences it as one social institution among many, he comes face to face with another gap between pretense and reality. Social institutions pretend to serve the individual, and the university even pretends to do so in loco parentis. However, for whatever services they render, they exact a price, which, in turn, impairs or even negates the services themselves. Social institutions, in the measure that they are mechanized and bureaucratized, diminish the individual, who must rely upon others rather than himself for the satisfaction of his wants, from the necessities of life to his spiritual and philosophic longings. What he once controlled himself others now control, and in the measure that they do, they diminish his freedom.

Thus, modern society suffers from a profound ambivalence. It pretends to take care of needs that formerly the individual had to struggle to take care of himself, and to a high degree it lives up to that pretense. Yet the institution that takes care of man’s needs also has the power to withhold that care. If it does, the individual’s needs are left without care, in so far as he has no alternative means to satisfy them through his own individual efforts; and the sphere in which such individual efforts can be effective has been reduced by the mechanization and bureaucratization of social institutions below the minimum necessary for the satisfaction of the individual’s elemental needs. In a word, the individual, to a high and unprecedented degree, is at the mercy of the institutions established for the purpose of meeting his needs.

When the student turns to the economic sphere, he faces a contradiction between the objective conditions conducive to an economy of abundance and economic practices carried over from the traditional economy of scarcity. On the one hand, he is surrounded and well-nigh engulfed by the hedonism of the status quo as the prevailing economic attitude, the status quo being synonymous with the continuing increase of material wealth enjoyed by a substantial majority of the people. An ever greater national product, ever higher personal incomes, ever more extensive social benefits, ever more amenities of life, an ever greater variety of novelties, and change for its own sake of the cogs and bolts of a hardly moving social machine—such are the goals in which the purpose of America seems to exhaust itself. As I pointed out in 1960 in The Purpose of American Politics:

The unrestrained and self-sufficient hedonism of contemporary society has brought in its wake what must be called a society of waste. For where the productivity of the nation feeds, as it were, upon itself and does not serve as a means to transcendent ends that select and assign the goods to be produced, waste necessarily ensues. Production, engendered by the needs of life and carried forward by the desire to make life easier, more attractive, and more nearly complete, becomes like a cancerous growth, multiplying and creating with elaborate and costly artificiality demands that can be called rational only in view of the goal of producing more and more goods.

This system of production is irrational because it rejects human needs and genuine desires as determining factors, replacing them with quantity of production for its own sake…. This system of production is irrational not only because it performs no positive economic or other social function, but also because it is wasteful of the resources of the nation…. This waste is a result of artificially induced competition and obsolescence. Essentially identical products compete with one another for a greater share of the market. They are essentially identical because the needs they serve are identical and must in the nature of things be satisfied by identical products. Competition among products of this kind can be justified neither in terms of price nor of quality, since both are essentially identical.

The enormous, wasteful proliferation of virtually identical products for competitive purposes, sometimes even within the same company, calls for the artificial creation and ever renewed and increased stimulation of demand. These wants are created, stimulated, and satisfied by artificial or imaginary obsolescence, advertising, and marketing. These efforts, as wasteful as the proliferation of products of which they are the inevitable result, add nothing to the substance of the product but serve exclusively the purpose of selling a maximum quantity of the product to people who would otherwise feel no need for it.

Not only American youth is repelled by this conspicuous irrationality. At a conference on “Culture and Society” held in Belgrade in the winter of 1969, one participant expressed dismay at a similar prospect for his society: “If the social development is not directed energetically toward a radical change of the social role and importance of the intellectual and cultural factors, I doubt whether it will be possible to achieve on our soil anything more important than a belated, Balkan variant of modern technological-consumer civilization.”

In America that intellectual dismay becomes moral outrage. For while the orgy of wasteful production and distribution devours the resources of the nation, society appears to be unable to relieve hunger and stamp out poverty. While in 1967 the Bureau of the Census classified more than 25 million Americans as poor and hence in want of proper food, farmers are allowed to burn potatoes in order to get higher prices and the government pays farmers for not producing. As school lunches for the poor tend to be perverted into subsidies for middleclass children1 and farmers, so the agricultural support program tends to make the rich farmer richer and leave the poor farmer poor.2 The regulatory agencies intended to protect the consumer have become the protectors of the economic forces they were created the economic forces they were created to regulate. The traditional liberal remedies have turned out to be not only unsuccessful but irrelevant to the issues at hand.

These experiences of a gap between pretense and performance culminate in the political sphere. The student has been told that his is a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Yet three basic experiences contradict that statement. First, the experience of the bureaucratization and mechanization of social life and the consistent diminution of the human person, to which we have referred before, is particularly pronounced in the political sphere. For the very political relationship—that is, one man imposing his will upon another—of necessity diminishes the latter’s stature as a person. Yet contemporary political relationships are marked by an unprecedented discrepancy in power between the wielder of power and its object. That power overwhelms the individual not only by its irresistibility, but also, because of its mechanized and bureaucratized nature, by its unfathomable anonymity. He lives in something approaching a Kafkaesque world, insignificant and at the mercy of unchallengeable and invisible forces.

Furthermore, the student not only feels helpless in the face of the powers-that-be but also appears incapable of influencing them. Students have demonstrated for freedom of speech in totalitarian countries; they have demonstrated against the Vietnam war and in support of racial justice in the United States and elsewhere. But what has been the result of all their demonstrations? Totalitarian governments still allow freedom of speech only to the rulers, the Vietnam war is still going on, and racial justice is still a postulate rather than a fact.

This experience of futility is powerfully reinforced and made definitive by a third factor: the lack of a workable alternative to the dominant philosophy, regime, and policies. That is as true of the Soviet Union as it is of France, as true of Japan as it is of the United States. What difference does it make for whom one votes when the policies of different persons and parties are virtually interchangeable?

Take the classic case of the 1964 Presidential elections. Most of us thought that it was as clear-cut a case of two different personalities, two different political philosophies, and two different political programs as one could wish. But those who voted for the loser were pleasantly surprised to find that his political program, at least on the international scene, was in good measure executed by the victor who had opposed that political program in the election campaign. As Senator Goldwater put it in the fall of 1969, when asked how he felt about President Johnson’s executing his program: “Well, he did it after he had read my speeches.”

While we used to stress the opportunities over the dangers, we now put the emphasis the other way around. For it should by now have become obvious that the great issues of our day—the militarization of American life, the Vietnam war, race conflicts, poverty, the decay of the cities, the destruction of the natural environment—are not susceptible to rational solutions within the existing system of power relations.

The militarization of American life is rooted in three factors, of which only one, the first, is susceptible to rational argument: the assumption that the same modes of thought and action which since the beginning of history have been applied to conventional weapons are also applicable to nuclear ones; a demonological conception of the world in which the United States is pitted in ineluctable conflict against other nations of incalculable power and infinite cunning; and social interests that have economic and political stakes in the continuation of policies derived from these factors.

Our involvement in the Vietnam war is similarly justified by this demonological conception of the world, which assigns to the United States the mission to defend the “Free World” against aggression and subversion from the Communist conspiracy. The strangeness to each other of the races is an existential psychological fact, transformed into acute antagonism and conflict by prejudice (which within limits is susceptible to rational refutation), concern for relative social status, and economic interests. Poverty on a large scale, like the decay of the cities and the ruination of the natural environment, is a result not of accidental misfortunes but of social and economic policies in whose continuation powerful social groups have a vested interest.

To the degree that these issues have been created and maintained in their unsolved state by powerful social groups, any approach toward reform that leaves the relative distribution of power intact will at best mitigate the social ills or at worst convey to the victims the soothing appearance of remedial action while confirming the status quo. In brief, the overriding single issue, of which all the others are but specific manifestations, is the distribution of power in American society, and that distribution has in its determining essentials survived all reform movements, from Populism through the Progressive Movement, Theodore Roosevelt’s Square Deal, Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal to John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, and the contemporary antiwar movement.

These movements have achieved much by changing the relations of the government to different social groups as well as the conditions of the social groups themselves. But when it comes to the over-all distribution of power in American society, they all appear in retrospect as essentially futile attempts at accomplishing through rational and moderate reform what can be accomplished only by a radical shift of power and priorities, either through the disintegration of the existing power structure or through revolution.

Thus the world into which the student is born, and into which he is supposed to fit himself to find his life’s fulfillment, must appear to him as a world of make-believe, a gigantic hoax where nothing is as it appears to be and upon which what he feels, thinks, aspires to and does has no effect except to provide inducement for harassment and repression. All the while, that meaningless and unbending world carries on under the shadow of an atomic cloud, which, if present trends continue, is likely to make an end to all of us. The real possibility of atomic destruction under present conditions compounds in the long run the senselessness of human existence that the practices of society bring home every day. The reaction of the activist youth has been threefold. It attacks universities as the weakest and most easily accessible outpost of the “establishment.” It challenges the “establishment” at its fringes, as in the draft and the windows, furniture, and offices of public and corporate buildings. It tries to create a new culture in which man will come into his own, satisfying his emotions and expanding his consciousness.

However, while the destruction of the university is easy—a couple of hundred determined students can do it—it is also irrelevant to the distribution of power in society. One can even assert that in so far as the university has been faithful to its mission to speak truth to power, it has been a thorn in the side of the powers-that-be. Thus the destruction of the university may for a fleeting moment satisfy the emotions of the destroyers, but it performs no useful political or social function. The same conclusion applies to challenging the “establishment” at its fringes. The fringes are expendable and easily repaired. The demonstrated futility, so far as taking effective power is concerned, of the attacks upon the university and upon the fringes of the “establishment” by the very same token reveals for all to see the “establishment’s” unchallengeable power.

It is a different matter with respect to the attempts at creating a subculture different from, and opposed to, the prevailing culture. If such a subculture were able to impose a new system of values and new modes of thought and action upon the material conditions of society, it would indeed thereby create a new society. Yet what many of the proponents of a subculture seem to seek is not to make rational and humane use of those material conditions but either to destroy them or to escape from them. In so far as they do the latter—returning to a state of nature both physical and emotional—they may at best save themselves as individuals. But they do nothing—except set an example for some—for society at large.

Thus far we have spoken of what youth can do to society. However, given the weakness in both the power and purpose of youth, it is much more important to ask, in view of its unchallengeable power, what society may do to youth and the rest of us. Society has essentially two choices: It can face the issues its own dynamics have created by perverting and faulting its original purpose of equality in freedom, to which it is still rhetorically committed, and thereby renew itself; or it can try to maintain the status quo with all means at its disposal, even at the expense of its original purpose. The preservation of the existing system then becomes the ultimate purpose.

There can be no doubt, in view of the record, that American society has chosen the latter alternative. Regardless of the libertarian and reformatory rhetoric, its policies, both at home and abroad, have served the defense of the status quo. Abroad, the United States has become the antirevolutionary power par excellence, because our fear of Communism has smothered our rational insight into the inevitability of radical change in the Third World. Our interventions in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic are monuments to that fear. At home, our commitment to making all Americans equal in freedom has been at war with our fear of change and our conformist subservience to those in power.

Our commitment to the American purpose of equality in freedom has won a battle in enforcing the rights of the black Americans at least in certain respects, a step forward that appears rather big as compared with the conditions of twenty years ago and rather insignificant as compared with the present conditions of the blacks in education, employment, and housing. What the change in the status of the blacks amounts to is the willingness of the ruling forces to co-opt blacks in such numbers and such conditions as not to endanger the over-all distribution of power within American society. When those who hold power in the United States perceive, rightly or wrongly, that the danger point is being approached, they call a halt to change and man the bastions of the status quo. Thus they sacrifice the purpose of America to the preservation of the existing power relations, which they will allow to be exposed to minor adjustments but not to radical transformation.

The extent of the repression in store for the dissenters will depend upon the subjective estimate of the seriousness the leaders in Washington and throughout the country place upon the threat to their power. In view of the thus far marginal nature of the threat, society will need only resort to marginally totalitarian methods. The dissenters will people our prisons, our graveyards, our Bohemias or—as utter cynics—our positions of power. The latter will not be unlike the Marxist-Leninists of the Soviet Union: They will mouth a litany of slogans in which they not only do not believe but which they despise. Such a society can carry on for a while, like a body without a soul, but sooner or later it must either recover its soul—that is, the purpose that has given it life—or disintegrate from within. Perhaps, then, a new society, with a new purpose, will be built upon the ruins of the old; or perhaps nothing will be left but ruins for later generations to behold.

  1. 1

    See Robert Sherrill, “Why Can’t We Just Give Them Food?” The New York Times Magazine, March 22, 1970, pp. 29, 91-103.

  2. 2

    See William Robbins, “Farm Policy Helps Make the Rural Rich Richer,” The New York Times, April 5, 1970, pp. 1, 56.

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