Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 118 in June, 2009.
Let there be no mistake, the old world of America is over. There is no bringing it back to life. The fanfare and pretense is just that, a flurry of activity to pretend that life is going on as normal, football games, rock concerts, hundreds of millions for a pitcher, new models of cars, SATs, the stock market, jingle bells, the news, job interviews, elections, the National Book Award. And oh, yes, bailouts. A czar for this, a czar for that.
The Republic of Bailout Land is the temporary nation that lies somewhere between the dead and what lies beyond. But don’t wait for a messiah to resurrect the fetid corpse. No election will produce that. American politics is a dead end, a grand illusion of smoke and mirrors that captivates the naïve and engages the deceitful. The game of power is but a façade that hides a barren landscape of decay. And the worship of wealth, that Golden Calf of pretense and illusion, has caused the collapse of everything that had been worthy of our admiration.
But in a land of scams, the greatest scam of all time, far bigger than Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme, went virtually unnoticed at the time of the swindle perpetrated on the American people by their elected officials, led by the Great Idiot, Hank Paulsen. After rejecting Paulsen’s three page memo giving him total power of how to allocate the 700 billion dollar bailout of the banks, Congress went ahead and let the banks line up at the window and draw out billions of dollars to save themselves from their self-inflicted catastrophe, without any accountability. The purpose of the money was to get the banks to start lending again, to each other and to businesses, but instead, they have not started lending. A Harvard Law School professor with no subpoena power has the daunting task to find out what they did with the money. When asked what his behemoth bank, J. P. Morgan Chase, did with its bailout bucks, swashbuckling CEO Jamie Dimon quipped, “Some of it we lent and some of it we didn’t lend.”
The tax on tea imposed by the British on the colonists, when compared to this, was ludicrously miniscule. Yet it led to the Boston Tea Party and ultimately, the American Revolution. An enraged CEO shouted on Fox News that if there could be a march on Washington for civil rights, then we should have a march on Washington to get the money back. After all, it’s ours, not the banks’.
But because the American people are both dead and powerless, the scam goes on. The explanation of why nothing can be done is that the money is gone, so there is no point in trying to get it back. Well, how about nationalizing the banks, confiscating the bonuses and firing the CEOs. Give them a mandate to start lending.
By all rights, the Americans should turn off the football game or the moronic sports shows with ex-jocks shouting at each other and take to the streets, marching to Washington to demand the heads of all those who perpetrated the swindle. Follow them to their homes and shout at them, “Crook, liar, phony?” That beats shooting your wife any day. Revolution Road leads to the capital, not to a dead end suburb. Pull the troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, cut off all foreign aid (imagine continuing to give aid to Mushareff in Pakistan in the tune of billions of dollars without figuring out he was swindling you for six years), take that money and get rid of the deficit and pay down the debt.
In case no one noticed, Americans have become indentured servants, paying for bloated college tuition, ludicrous medical insurance premiums, insane property taxes and medications to combat insomnia and hysteria engendered by the stress-filled lives that people lead in America. This is no normal recession. It is the end of a way of life that can no longer be sustained. It is dead, over. The world that is powerless to be born is so only because of the mass deceptions perpetrated on the people by the combination of corporate and state power. We are beyond reform. The only changed that will work is revolution.
MSO And The State
MSO stands for Massive Spontaneous Obsolescence. It is a more exact way to explain what Nietzsche was writing about in “The Birth of Tragedy and the Meaning of Music.” It was no accident that Wagner played a significant role in the revolutionary uprisings in Europe in 1848. Strange forces smash the old order, generating a period of chaos before a new order sets in. A constitutional order has as its purpose the allowance for change with a minimum of tragedy. There is evolution as opposed to revolution. It is when things get totally out of hand that a constitutional order can no longer respond effectively because events move more rapidly than the mechanisms of constitutional change. This is the essence of MSO.
The debate between liberals and conservatives on whether there should be more government or less is itself an anachronism. Contemporary events reveal that what is at work is a cycle, not a matter of ideological preference. Because of this, it can be said conclusively that both Roosevelt and Reagan were right. Because of human frailty, abuses of the market are inevitable. These activities produce the boom and bust cycle and end with a severe crisis that threatens the democratic institutions on which the modern state is based. Once this happens, state intervention becomes an imperative until there is a sufficient correction to warrant a diminishing of state power, with a minimum perpetuated to prevent or modify the cycle.
What ought to be evident in this crisis of the state is the failure of democratic institutions created to reconcile these opposition forces in the complex Madisonian dialectic designed to make certain that nothing will ever happen. When government creates agencies to accomplish particular ends, be they the protection of the environment or the regulation of the markets, these agencies become bureaucracies, and as such, are inevitably corrupted. If, for example, there were government agencies to rate corporate bonds instead of the private ones that are paid by the corporations themselves, it would follow as night follows day that the incompetent will drive out the competent, the basic law of bureaucracy. The entire history of the CIA is the best example of this. Bureaucracies are populated for the most part by clock-watchers who make the lives of the diligent intolerable.
The entire Madisonian notion of the separation of powers was, itself, flawed from the outset, designed to engender paralysis. The constitution was designed to curtail radicalism in order to protect the privileges of the ruling class. The Senate, a completely undemocratic institution with Rhode Island getting the same two votes as California, was designed to curtail any effort to achieve meaningful change. The one great exception to this was under Lyndon Johnson, who got the Senate to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which he was able to do because he explained to Richard Russell what civil rights were all about. Johnson, and Kennedy before him, understood that the Cold War was being fought within the Civil Rights Movement, something that somehow William Buckley, for all his anti-Communism, failed to appreciate. Once the Act had been passed, he told Russell that it was a foreign policy victory, the subtext being that its passage was in the interests of the ruling class, including those in the South who were too stupid to understand this reality. If the 1964 Act had not gone down, the victors would not have been the segregationists, but the Soviet Union, who then would have prevailed in Africa, depriving America of the minerals that it needed for its national security. The Communist Party of South Africa, which controlled the African National Congress, with Soviet backing, could say that America was forever a racist country that would never give blacks their rights. And within the movement itself, the Communists would have been able to say that blacks would never get their rights through the democratic process. Because of all of this, segregation was afflicted with MSO, to which race itself will inevitably succumb.
It is this failure to distinguish between Aristotle and Marx that has caused such a fatal imbalance to prevail once the Communist threat had been eliminated. Under Eisenhower, the tax rate on the wealthy was ninety percent because, as Eisenhower put it, the rich had the most to lose if Communism won so it was only fair that they should pay more to fight the Cold War.
When Larry Kudlow rants on about the injustice of raising taxes on what he calls the “high achievers,” (a euphemism to describe the thieves that have looted the financial institutions,) calling such efforts as “Marxist,” he misses the point entirely. To Aristotle, justice was akin to balance, so that when something was out of balance it needed to be corrected. If a person committed a crime, punishment was how the society restored balance through retributive justice. But Aristotle recognized that there was another form of imbalance that needed redressing, the disparity of wealth. His concept of distributive justice requires that there be an “equitable distribution of the benefits and burdens of society” so that balance is maintained. When the disparity of wealth becomes so great as to engender a serious imbalance, “things fall apart,” as Yeats observed. Sooner or later, the have-nots, pushed to the limit, will come in the dead of night and slash the throats of those who are monopolizing the wealth. Equilibrium is in the interests of the rich to prevent violent revolution, but they are usually too stupid to understand that revolutions do happen when no one expects them to. When Barack Obama supported “spreading the wealth around” in his comments to Joe the Plumber, he was not being a Marxist; he was being an Aristotelian.
Ann Coulter, who rails against the liberals, has no understanding of the contradictions of the liberals. They are not radicals; they are not nefarious Marxists. When Roosevelt’s enemies denounced him as a “traitor to his class,” they were too stupid to understand that he was, in fact, saving them from themselves. To the extent that the New Deal failed, it was only because he didn’t go far enough. The Supreme Court played a role in this as well, it should be noted, when it declared the National Recovery Act, the main plank in his program, unconstitutional. The Supreme Court had itself become afflicted with MSO, with obsolete forms of constitutional interpretation throwing obstacles in the way of essential change. Roosevelt’s plan to expand the Supreme Court and fill the new vacancies with judges sympathetic to him was almost universally denounced because the Court had managed to achieve cult status. And while the plan failed, Roosevelt did manage to scare a number of the Old Guard into retirement so he could appoint justices like William O. Douglas and Robert Jackson, both of whom had served in the New Deal. But the damage had been done.
In our own times, we are witnesses to the massive obsolescence of the constitutional system as it now stands. The system is designed to create gridlock. The notion of the filibuster is so obsolete as to defy the imagination. It is a rule designed to protect the interests of those who have caused most of the problems.
It ought to be obvious as well that the way America elects its presidents is totally obsolete. This is no longer a political process; it is a permanent business. No sooner than someone is elected president than new campaigns are launched, raising ever more money than the last ones. True, Obama’s method of raising money, invented by Howard Dean, has overthrown the old system, but it does not make the role of money in presidential elections any less insidious. The only way to end this cycle is to totally transform the system, even if it takes a constitutional convention to do it.
No more endless primaries and caucuses, no more gigantic fundraisers, no more cabinet appointees the chief executive knows virtually nothing about. The majority will have the ability to pass legislation and enact its program without the obstacle of the filibuster, and if people don’t like it, they can throw them out and elect a new congress to reverse the mistakes.
The domination of the government in our daily lives destroys the notion of liberty on which the country was founded. Liberty is not some vague, abstract concept. It is one based on the notion that a country does best when individual achievement is promoted. Only in a society in decay is power more important than achievement. As Jefferson succinctly put it, “When the government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.” Huge governments sap the energy of a nation, replacing it with an ennui that becomes difficult to overcome.
THE MSO OF SNOBBERY
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when America became the snob capital of the world. It used to be France, but the French have long ago given up that distinction. And while the class system is alive and well in Britain, at least they define the class system by whom you let in, not on whom you keep out. Revolutionary America has ossified into a bastion of snootiness in which there is a total disdain for people who work with their hands or haven’t gone to Williams. No other country in the world ranks things the way it is done in America. The pecking order has become so obsessive that high school students have nervous breakdowns because of college rejections. The debilitating effect of this can be felt at every level of society.
As a reaction to this, America has developed another insidious form of snobbery; the upside down variety, of which Sarah Palin is the prime example. It is this form of snobbery that has generated the anti-intellectualism endemic to American culture. The entire concept of thought and discourse is alien to America. It has become so insidious that there is virtually no intellectual life at American universities, where uniformity of thought is de rigueur. This reverse form of snobbery hampers the black community in America. A smart black kid is at a loss in the mentally regressive hip-hop culture that demands he wear a crooked baseball cap and absurdly baggy trousers and speak like an illiterate. This mysterious post-civil rights black consciousness is definitely a form of snobbery in which you are not a man unless you’ve done time. The result of this is that blacks are killing more blacks than the KKK did. Black crime, a problem that afflicts Americans and that drags down the culture and the economy, is a chronic illness in America. It has destroyed great swaths of cities.
It might seem incongruous to suggest that many blacks in the “hood” are snobs, but they are. Look at the way they reacted to Barack Obama at first, with Jesse Jackson accusing him to talking down to blacks. But he wasn’t talking down to them, he was speaking excellent American English to all kinds of audiences. He was the anti-Sharpton, and at first he was resented for it. If blacks are going to break this cycle, they must decide to live lives without the drama that they believe makes them somehow superior. Their anthem should be Mary J. Blithe’s “No More Drama.”
Meanwhile the snobbery of exclusion destroys the possibility of a united country. Free association is a right in America, but the privileged snobs who make a point of excluding those they consider to be inferior engender a subterranean rage at a class of people whose snobbery is really a form of racial and religious intolerance.
The two forms of snobbery perpetuate a destructive cycle that breeds resentment and destroys the soul of the country. The seething resentment that is widespread in America produces a distortion in personality and character that is often at the heart of the anomie that leads to the mindless hysteria that is the underlying constant in the culture produced by a longing to belong and be appreciated.
It is the essential oneness of human experience that ought to make people want to care for each other, as Heidegger insisted, but if that “oneness” is restricted to one’s own then the perpetual psychic and even physical warfare will never end. The election of Barack Obama has generated a degree of hysteria in segments of the population unknown in the history of American politics. That he was elected at all shows that the majority of Americans are ready to put these divisions behind them. How bad the backlash will be remains to be seen. It is the essence of snobbery that everyone needs to have someone to look down at. It is central to the lives of many people and giving up that form of negative identity will be traumatic to some, but this petty aspect of human existence narrows the richness of human experience that can enlighten and motivate in positive ways. Identifying with the entire human race is at the heart of mental health. Condescension is its enemy.
The clash between the Israelis and the Palestinians can be traced to these forms of snobbery. Jews have been looked down on for so long that they need someone to look down on, while the Arab Moslems not only resent Jews for this, but adopt a posture of superiority towards them. As long as these attitudes persist, the fighting will go on forever. It is totally backward to persist with these attitudes, yet the ability to get over them is hampered by the necessity of clinging to obsolete identities based primarily on fear and ignorance. Snobbery is the form of expression of ignorance and fear, which, in a way, makes us all snobs of one sort or another. If people could just put things in perspective in the context of the universe , eternity and the brevity of their own lives, they might get over this. If they don’t, they will end up destroying life on the planet.
THE MSO OF ART
Meyer Shapiro insisted that artists had an innate relationship to the society around them, the “social necessity” with which art is bound “to conditions of its own time and place.” He mocked the notion of the artist in isolation, in a bohemian lifestyle or in the “context of their formal fantasy…There are artists and writers for whom the apparent anarchy of modern culture … is historically progressive, since it makes possible for the first time the conception of the human individual with his own needs or goals.” He argued that this notion was “restricted to small groups who are able to achieve such freedom only because of the oppression and misery of the masses.” (see Pepi, The Proletarian Artist and the New Deal State, Wesleyan University, 2008) Rousseau put it more succinctly: “The arts are garlands on the chains.”
In Twentieth Century American art, two movements stand out as arising from “social necessity,” by being bound to conditions of their “own time and place”: The Social Realism of the Depression and just before, and the Abstract Expressionism of the post war period from 1945 to 1960. In the case of Social Realism, the driving force was Marxism, while for Abstract Expressionism it was Freud and particle physics, the subconscious, the destructive and the unpredictable.
So why is there no current artistic movement corresponding to the times? In the arts in general, the single major work that might have engendered one is John Corigliano’s Symphony Number One, but very few followed in his footsteps. Art, having capitulated totally to the art market and having become not much more than decoration for the walls of the McMansions of hedge fund managers and their airhead wives, has been left desolate, after the financial collapse. Having sold out, the artists find that they have nothing to say apart from griping that they bet on the wrong horse. There is nothing in the stimulus package in the nature of the New Deal WPA projects for artists and even if there had been, what would the art be like produced by such government grants? The last time the National Endowment for the Arts gave grants to individual artists, the end product was Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of naked gay men ramming objects up each other’s assholes, a woman cutting herself and bleeding, and another, appearing naked, covered with chocolate. This art was a legacy and logical extension of Andy Warhol, who could, at least sometimes, produce work that was thought provoking. Once James Rosenquist’s F-111 appeared, (a work of sublime propaganda against the Vietnam War) all that was left for art, from pop art to op art, was propaganda for nihilism as the only legitimate response to the imperial America of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. By the time that was all over, it was spent. The final absurdity was Damien Hirst’s diamond covered skull, which if one analyzes it, was a not inappropriate comment on the defeat of art by a dead capitalism that has accumulated all the wealth in a narcissistic display of self-indulgence and arrogance.
Goethe predicted that the arts would come to an end. Was this because Rousseau was right and that the arts were simply “garlands on the chains?” We have had the artist as sycophant and the artist as rebel and the artist as bohemian and none of it has worked. All that is left is a kind of parody of art, a pastiche of past visions without a coherent theme. The spectacle of Helen Frankenthaler going around with her PR agent, claiming to have invented drip painting with Jackson Pollack, is nothing short of nauseating. The writers of the West do nothing but rehash. One must look to the new global canon, represented by Aravand Agida’s The White Tiger, a revelation of contemporary human degradation so powerful as to leave one breathless. In Agida’s world, there is no hope. There are no leaders of worth, no system capable of eradicating the human misery he explores with a ruthless cynicism that would make Celine blush. The scene of the drivers squatting in a row at night, defecating is where it all ends. Art is shit. But what can Agida do for an encore? There is quite simply no encore in the face of the absurdity that life on the planet earth has become. The gross spectacle of collapse and destruction contrasted with obscene self-indulgence boggles the mind. There is no place for art in this cacophony of hypocrisy. One cannot even do a parody of someone like Sandy Weill, the former CEO of Citigroup. With his company on the verge of bankruptcy, engendered by his own arrogance, he has a corporate jet fly his family for a Christmas holiday as described by Maureen Dowd, as a” $12,000-a-night luxury resort in San Jose del Cabo, Mexico,” at a time when his company is receiving $50 billion in federal bailout money and has laid off 53,000 workers. The interior of the jet, as described by the New York Post, “is posh, with a full bar, fine-wine selection, $13,000 carpets, Baccarat crystal glasses, Cristofle sterling silver flatware” and Dowd’s personal favorite, “pillows made from Hermes scarves.” Only Agida is capable of converting this into art. Of course, Weill has embezzled himself into heaven with the millions he has given to Cornell Medical School, so that it has been named for himself. This is positively the end, the death not just of art but of life itself. There is no energy to revolt, no capacity to imagine appropriate responses in the form of creativity. This is where the American Revolution dies. It is the end of the road. That is the whole point of Richard Yates’ novel in which Revolutionary Road takes an entire country to a dead end and there is no art, anywhere, to wake the people up. All that was worthwhile is in the museums, and their fare can be summed up by the Rose Museum of Art at Brandeis University. The university, on the verge of bankruptcy, has put all the great works of the Rose collection up for sale in order to keep the art department alive. Perhaps the one greatest failure of the financial world is that, unlike the Medici, with all their wealth, they did not create a Renaissance.
At the heart of the decline of art in America is the absence of virtu` personified in the work and life of a relatively unknown Italian-American artist, Vincent Pepi Pepi, who is still working at eighty two, is distinct from the American Abstract Expressionists of his generation because of his possession of what was known during the Italian Renaissance as virtu`. Virtu` was personified in the person of Cellini, whom Pepi resembles, not in any way because of similarity in their art, but because of the way Pepi shares Cellini’s insistence on creating his own destiny apart from outside forces. Virtu` was not arrogance. Rather, to quote Jerrod E. Siegel, it “connoted personal strength; the power to find fulfillment within one’s self and remain indifferent to external rewards.” Machiavelli quoted Petrarch’s lines: “Virtu` will take arms against violence and the let the fight be short.” Painters of the period most closely associated with virtu` were Giovanni Pisano and Francesco de Barerino, whose chosen name “Filarete,” meant “lover of virtue.” Pepi, in his life and art, has emulated this model.
Italian Renaissance thinkers and artists sensed that old models of virtue were no longer applicable because of the dramatic changes in their society, and sought new models to emulate. They found it in Hercules, who became a symbol of virtu`s concept of manliness, courage and strength. It included, as well, Seneca’s notion of virtu`, which was moral worth, honestas. The man who recognizes honestas as the only good worth seeking was free of fortune. “He who reckons other things as goods comes under fortune’s power.” The Roman goddess Fortuna represented the power beyond one’s control to determine one’s destiny. Those who worshipped it gave up the only strength that mattered, that of virtu`, that gave the artist control over his destiny as an individual without regard to personal reward.
DaVinci, himself the epitome of the Renassiance, was also a designer and an engineer, multifaceted in a way that is alien to American culture, where one is expected to be one dimensional. What in America is regarded as spreading oneself too thin was, during the Renaissance, an admired quality that signified the age. That America never had the opportunity to experience the Renaissance directly has led to the impoverishment of its culture, a realization that continually haunts Pepi. That he has been able to survive and keep working in a manner true to himself is astonishing, although he retains a certain bitterness at the artistic void that America has become. If he appears sometimes to be contemptuous, it is out of the realization that something profound is missing in America, something he has struggled mightily and in solitude to contribute to fill the void. This is not a personal bitterness out of a lack of appreciation that would be out of character. It is, rather, a profound sense that an opportunity is being lost to create a richer culture in America, without which it is doomed to mediocrity in a barren, philistine wasteland.