Prometheus in America

The American Condition

by Richard N. Goodwin
Doubleday, 408 pp., $10.00

Musing upon America’s fortunate condition, with its vast stretches of unoccupied land and seemingly inexhaustible resources, Tocqueville concluded that “the great privilege of Americans is to be able to commit reparable mistakes.” The “happy republic,” he thought, could afford its pragmatic and undemanding politics as long as material abundance and economic opportunity could be used to buy off class conflicts and social discontents.

Today we don’t need Tocqueville to tell us that we live in the midst of restricted opportunities, constricted space, and dwindling resources. What we want to know is how, as a people, we should respond. How shall we think about our history, now that we are no longer confident about our uniqueness and superiority? About our national power, now that our dreams of endless progress and economic omnipotence have dissolved? About our vaunted ability to solve “problems,” now that we perceive them to be more obdurate than expected, more likely to worsen under our prescriptions?

One possibility is to consider recasting our conceptions of politics in other and more demanding forms. Perhaps a condition where mistakes may be irreparable requires a new politics of preservation rather than the old one of expansion. Another possibility is to respond like Marx’s bourgeoisie and complain that someone has played a “dirty trick” on us. The second possibility is realized in The American Condition, but with a reverse twist. Marxism, or rather a bowdlerized version of it, is mixed with other ingredients—Berle and Means, Galbraith, Roszak, and Reich—to produce the kind of critique which Marx loathed, a soulful lament masquerading as searching criticism.

According to Goodwin, the American condition is one of unfreedom, alienation, and fragmentation. Freedom is typically defined by him as “the use and fulfillment of our humanity—its powers and wants—to the outer limits fixed by the material conditions and capacity of the time” (p. 24). Freedom is denied when our power is frustrated and our wants go unfulfilled. Alienation is what prevents the realization of our freedom. It signifies the transfer of our will and power to an external authority, “the coercive structures of modern society” (p. 9). The poignancy of our condition comes not only from our loss of freedom and “the dissolution of community, shared social consciousness, and moral authority,” but from a sense of frustration. While America seemingly has within its grasp a material and technological potential of undreamed possibilities, the same structures responsible for the possibilities prevent their consummation.

The deeper causes of the American condition, according to Goodwin, lie in history—not American history, but in the “individualism” planted by the Renaissance and nurtured by a combination of “science” and “mysticism.” These developments promoted personal experience and thought above “collective consciousness,” and liberated men from “collective authority.” The destruction of the intimate ties of community and the restraints of authority, which are needed for freedom, produced “fragmentation.” Science and mysticism then proceeded to fill the void which they had helped to create. Both “have powerful inclinations …

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