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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 toward system, toward a total order, a structure of beliefs and facts which contain and define all of reality” (p. 54). They issued in “systematic ideologies” which needed only to “mate” with power to produce the present condition of “madness” (pp. 57, 60-61). The citizen is victimized by an enormous economic “process” which converts his contribution of “social wealth” into rewards for the undeserving and his labor into maintaining a mega-system which has no other end save its own perpetuation.

It would be a waste of space to criticize Goodwin’s use of history: it is arbitrary, inaccurate, and indifferent to the requirements of explanation.1 For all his talk about “community” and “authority,” he seems wholly uninterested in evidence or concrete examples. His conception of community is a fair specimen:

Community provides a mooring for the spirit. For community is a restraint that liberates. It relieves us of the necessity to continually prove our worth or to seek reassurance of that worth. It diminishes the destructive social process of judging and being judged which cripples our capacity to think and act freely and with honesty. [P. 79]

No doubt the Puritan founders of “the city of the hill,” which Goodwin admiringly mentions, would be bemused by the last two sentences. Here and elsewhere in the book, it seems never to occur to Goodwin that community, like all lofty goals, may exact a fierce price, one that might be worth paying if we are truly serious and recognize that the highest goods impose the severest demands. But when Goodwin remarks that “we are made less by the magnitude of denial” (p. 192), one cannot help suspecting his city on the hill to be Esalen rather than Plymouth.

In the same careless and self-indulgent spirit Goodwin uses the great writers of the past: a sprig of Nietzsche, a tidbit from Kierkegaard, a morsel of Machiavelli, an hors d’oeuvre from the Old Testament, a slice of Plato, a helping of Marx. Throughout Goodwin follows a consistent principle of selection which is to avoid the harsh and demanding teaching of each writer. Not the Marx of class struggle and revolutionary violence; the Plato who demanded an inhuman austerity in his republic; the Machiavelli who loved his native city more than his soul. Marx, instead, appears mainly as the prophet of consciousness, “liberating individuals to fulfill the more expansive possibilities of their humanity” (p. 16). Plato is made to support the very conception of freedom which he opposed.2 In sum, Goodwin treats history and ideas as the American frontiersman treated the virgin land, exploiting its riches but refusing it respectful and affectionate care.

It is not surprising that Goodwin should be drawn to the myth of the bound Prometheus, the symbol of frustrated power. In one sense, The American Condition is a self-portrait of the American as Prometheus. He is not the angry, “world-conquering” deity admired by Marx, but a gelded and petulant Prometheus who is peeved at history. History had presented this American Prometheus with a near-continent, rich in natural wealth, unscarred by politics or structures of inequality, and “undimmed by human tears.” He had been led to believe that the purpose of all previous history was to produce the American, the favored man-child of fortune. But now he finds America beset by problems which he had thought it done with: poverty, prejudice, injustice, tyranny. And the rest of the world views him with a mixture of scorn and hatred. He had thought that there would be no cost, that he could have technology and “community”; that he could share wealth as well as “values.” Cheated of the promise of history, he is left only with the consolations of innocence.

So he complains that he and his nation are innocent. After all, “our pride in military exploits has centered on the idea of winning…rather than our capacity to occupy, subdue, and rule.” Even our “least explicable (sic) wars” were not so bad because they were “justified in traditional terms.” The Mexican War was “different,” for “the only realistic choice was whether the new lands would become part of the union or form independent nations.” Admittedly “the rights of the Indians were betrayed. But one must remember that the pioneers were not affluent, middle-class Americans.” Finally, resorting to distinctions that escape even Dante’s finely drawn circles of guilt, innocence turns resentful: “We may have had warlike majorities, destructive majorities or greedy majorities, but we have never had a majority of cynics” (p. 96-97).

What lies behind these complaints? Repressed anger at the perversion of what Tocqueville had called “a democracy more perfect than antiquity had dared dream of”? Or the vestigial guilt of Hiroshima? The unremedied injustices of blacks and the poor? The Vietnam war and the December bombings which “worked” to force negotiations? Watergate and the corruption of constitutional government? Hardly. Goodwin in this book seems possessed by what Nietzsche called ressentiment, the sense of impotence which drives the dominated to attack the values of their masters while secretly desiring to possess them.

Thus while Goodwin appears to subscribe to the criticism of science and technology made familiar by writers of the counter-culture, he loves its possibilities more than he hates its consequences. “For it is undeniably clear,” he writes, “that we possess far more expansive possibilities than we can hope to achieve within the present structure of society; that society’s ability to satisfy human wants is far less than its capacity” (p. 170). As Nietzsche suspected, a person possessed by ressentiment would compose the most lyrical rhapsodies on power, and Goodwin does so: “presently constrained forces…a rising national achievement…the satisfaction of an immense variety of human wants…an unprecedented ability to choose the conditions of social existence…no discernible limit….” If only we could be rid of the “imposed pattern” of our present economy, “we could rebuild cities, restore nature, end poverty, and in the process add to our total wealth…” (pp. 178, 187-188).

Goodwin’s rhapsody to omnipotence reaches its climax when the economy is compared to an accelerating object whose mass is continually expanding: an “infinite” economy which could satisfy “nearly any material desire” (pp. 186-187). There is, at this point, not much reference by Goodwin to community, shared purpose, inner power, and benign authority: perhaps he sensed that the conditions for infinite growth might constitute counter-conditions for community and authority.

Ressentiment‘s dreams of omnipotence are matched by its feelings of powerlessness. Those who are powerless are not prevented from talking threateningly about coercive structures, alienated persons, and “radical social disorder.” Accordingly, as Nietzsche might have predicted, Goodwin is full of threat:

Our humanity is being consumed. …If we wish to be free, then we must reject a stable tranquility…in favor of defiance, outrage, and conflict…. We can recapture our own existence only by an assault on the material society which imprisons it…. A structural transformation [is needed]. …[Pp. 165, 191, 343, 372]

All of this is, however, mere radical foreplay. Faced with the implications of his own remarks, Goodwin excuses himself, pleading that political action has been made ineffectual by the material forces which dictate human possibilities; that political reforms cannot ease our “afflictions”; that maybe there is still some slack in the system. Besides, “remorseless alienation,” the “formidable powers” of our social system, and a structure of “incredible complexity” make revolution “difficult and uncertain” (p. 200).3

Although any intelligent person might blanch at revolution, he would not necessarily choose absolute political passivity. Yet Goodwin renounces all forms of political action and depicts the “state” as a mere reflex of material forces. “There is,” he tells us, “no ‘public interest’ ” (p. 312). At the same time, he dismisses all of the political choices suggested and explored during the Sixties. That is not surprising because the desired condition is believed to be so nearly and painlessly within reach that risk-taking seems irrational. Changing the direction of production, for example, “would not require an economic sacrifice by the society as a whole” (p. 183).

Goodwin’s distaste for action carries over into the few recommendations he offers: when these are not vague, as in his reference to decentralization, they are contradictory, as in his proposals to establish “public control” of some areas of the economy and to nationalize “the major sources of capital” which follow his attacks on bureaucracy and the illusions of politics. With so much invested in the power of technology, it is only fitting that Goodwin should look to technology to perform the ultimate act and change itself: “The presence of a productive potential larger than actual performance is itself a social force, continually pressing against existing economic relationships” (p.394). In the meantime, while we wait for “inevitable change” (p.396), there is the consoling fantasy of technological eros reveling in its innocent hedonism: “It is not necessary to forego the pursuit of pleasure, only to understand what pleasure is and liberate ourselves to pursue the true source of happiness, which is freedom” (p.374).

The only reason for lingering over Goodwin’s excursion into the “pathology of society” and his wild vacillations between omnipotence and impotence is the opportunity it affords for contemplating the life-cycle of a political intellectual of the Sixties. Goodwin served, among his other positions, as a presidential counselor in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He is reputed to have been the author of Johnson’s speeches on the “Great Society” and the “War on Poverty.” Despite the organization-chart language which defined his government position, the capacity in which he served is the ancient one immortalized by Machiavelli: the political counselor who advises, serves, and (as Sir Thomas More added) restrains the men who make decisions, the men of power. Unlike, say, Moynihan or Kissinger, however, Goodwin was not a recognized expert in a particular field of policy. He was a generalist, more at ease with broad, humanistic notions than with the conceptual analytics of systems theory.

But the organizers of modern government are all-provident. They can accommodate the bearer of humane learning and make it possible for him to be “plugged” into the system and to register his “input.” Thus a place is made available for those with a “sense of history,” for those who will bring a special sensibility to bear on the present and, perhaps, the future.

The role, however, is extraordinarily difficult. Its holder’s sole claim to be listened to does not rest on a kind of knowledge which can be presented in the tidy and seemingly authoritative form of, say, cost-benefits analysis; nor is it, strictly speaking, instrumental knowledge. It is, or should be, reflective knowledge acquired from having seen enough of the radical roots of evil to doubt any political program which would entrust enormous power, capable of destroying human connections as well as foreign cities, to mortal agents whose abilities, foresight, and good will are always limited. It is aware, too, that reflective knowledge can turn into mere Seelenangst, a melancholy which, in secret enjoyment at the “absurd” spectacle of puny beings defying their fate, becomes a vicious pretext for inaction. If there is need always to temper possibilities by the warnings of finitude, there is equal need to be on the alert to “complexity,” that bastard twin of finitude, which counsels helplessness in the name of “priorities,” even though the same names coincidentally appear at the top each time.

Which is to say, it is hard to tell the truth in politics; or, stated differently, playing the role of political intellectual is not identical with following a vocation of telling the truth about politics. Among ruling circles, where the urge to extend power is instinctive, “the man who beckons them back and points out dangers ahead can hardly be welcome.” To remain with the “evil companionship” of power-loving rulers, Thomas More wrote, invariably leads to corruption or to becoming a helpless accomplice to “the wickedness and folly of others.” The route followed by Goodwin took him to service with Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, and Muskie. During these years he continued to write glowingly of the need for political “mastery,” the promise of “affluence,” and “the world stage” on which “America has its opportunity to act a great role in human history….”4 Now, with the dreams of the Kennedy era replaced by the antipolitical illusions of The American Condition, Goodwin has signed on with Rolling Stone. Nietzsche would have been amused.

The truth about our condition is not “alienation” or the frustrations of economic abundance. It concerns political corruption. Not the simple corruption in illegal or excessive campaign spending but that larger corruption which, as Machiavelli wrote, “invades the bowels of the city.” The politics of a republic is of a special sort. It depends upon a broadly diffused political culture in which the key notions are restraint on the use of power at home and abroad; a somewhat austere standard of life and behavior; and a jealous affection for the political and social arrangements which define the common life of the society.

The corruption of the political culture of a republic takes a rather long time. It begins to take hold when citizens habitually cease to care about political forms and proprieties, and are willing to shrug off a thousand small abuses; they come to accept as “normal politics” the tactics whereby their leaders seek to divide the citizenry into hostile groups, classes, and races; they become grateful for small bones and fear that justice may require a redistribution of advantages; and, eventually, all that they have in common is a fear for their possessions and a vanity in the display of their material power.

It was a rare happening, Machiavelli wrote, for a republic to recapture its politics. Only a “shock” could restore its vital principles. This might take the form of an “external” blow, say, a military disaster abroad; or it might be a dramatic “internal occurrence” like a political scandal of unprecedented and ever-widening proportions involving the highest offices in the land. Whether a republic is able to recognize these opportunities is the crucial test of how far its corruption has proceeded. For unlike the “mistakes” of which Tocqueville wrote, opportunities of this kind are unrecallable.

  1. 1

    A typical explanation: “Value launched the trading ships, enclosed the common lands, built the factories, and gave life to economic man” (p. 262).

  2. 2

    The free individual,” Goodwin asserts, “is one who can direct his energies and labor to purposes of his own choosing. He retains mastery over his social existence.” Goodwin then cites Plato in support of this notion without realizing that Plato’s formulation is very different: “The just man sets in order his own inner life, and is his own master and his own law, and at peace with himself” (p. 27).

  3. 3

    It is worth recalling the closing line of Goodwin’s widely publicized article of 1966 on the Vietnam war. After reciting the complexities and dilemmas of the war and managing to avoid any clear moral or political position, Goodwin concluded with this thought about Vietnam and some future war: “It will be no one’s fault.” Then he added this revealing postscript: “Comment on the appearance of this essay…revealed the ending to be more confusing than I had intended (sic)…it will be the fault of many…. There will be no act of madness, no single villain on whom to discharge guilt; just the flow of history” (Triumph or Tragedy, pp. 64, 67).

  4. 4

    The Shape of American Politics,” Commentary, June, 1967.

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