Sunday, March 29, 2009

POPULISM ISN’T THE PEOPLE

Over on Salon, Gary Kamiya notes accurately that the current economic catastrophe has lifted up hopes of “the peasants storming the Bastille”; he figures this would be somewhat of a good thing. Over on Alternet, Robert Freeman wonders “Does America Face the Risk of a Fascist Backlash?”, which he thinks – who can disagree? – would not be a good thing.

It comes down, I think, to the distinction between ‘people’ and ‘The People’. That mass of ‘people’ who are alive and buzzing or booming around are simply individual wrapped up in their own matters, connecting with other similar types who are ‘near’ them by virtue of relationship in family, friendship, business, or the myriad connections of daily life.

‘The People’ is composed of those who have gone to the trouble of developing their capacity to function as Citizens. This is no easy task: it requires civic involvement – active participation in the political developments of the day; but it also requires civic awareness – alertness to what’s going in and – especially – what ‘government’ is up to . But even before that, it requires that one school oneself in how to think and assess the events and doings affecting the common weal – which is an act of mind. And even more deeply than that, it requires that one purposely and consciously seek to develop a character appropriate to the Citizen: a willingness to face the shimmery brights and swirling darks of the political goings-on.

This last point is especially important. We expect that Our fire departments do not simply sit in the stations waiting for a call, but rather keep themselves and their equipment in a continuous state of competent readiness. We expect that Our armed forces do the same. In this sense being a Citizen is a ‘discipline’, an ‘askesis’, a responsibility to achieve competence in a certain project or mission, that is ongoing and around which one may – and in a democracy must – build a life and, to no small extent, a self.

The unthinking assumption that folks can allow themselves to sink into the mire and boombuzz of a modern, consumerist economy, to allow themselves to focus solely on making ends meet, raising a family or conducting worthwhile human relationships, and only on election days rush out to ‘cast a vote’, and that by some magic or alchemy the Republic will be preserved and the common weal will be ensured … that’s a Bubble from Hell itself.

And one that was foreseen by the Framers. It was no small challenge for them: to declare freedom from the tyranny of monarchy (today’s ‘unitary executive’ but also today’s ‘Beltway complex’) while at the same time worrying that a whole bunch of ‘people’ , rushing and shouting together, would create an equally lethal threat to democracy in a Republic. Throughout Our history, this has been one of the great engines of political thought and action: can you trust ‘people’ to be The People? If not, then what does a government do?

This never-solved and never-fully-answered question assumed even more ominous proportions in the 20th century. The Age of industrialized, urban, ‘mass society’ was upon Us, linked and yet also divided by increasingly efficient yet also increasingly intrusive means of ‘mass communication’. Learning how to work all these developments, and perhaps turn a profit from them, and then deal with all the ‘possibilities’ that these developments brought, on top of raising a family and keeping a job and building a life … who could have a lot of time and energy left over for maintaining the capacity to be a Citizen?

As with the old bucket-brigades of citizens and with the militia, We left it to ‘professionals’ so that We could get on with the tasks and excitements and conveniences of ‘the modern age’.
And with the end of World War 2, America’s tremendously complex national life was intensified monstrously with the added roles of ‘leader of the Free World’ as well as with the perks and benefits of being the only developed nation whose economy and infrastructure was unscathed by the ravages of war.

We left it to ‘politicians’ to sort of ‘run’ the government, which increasingly meant running the country as corporations and ‘national security’ began to infiltrate and take root in all areas of American experience.

But the developments of the early 20th century had left a mark far beyond their initial historical context. From Soviet Russia came the idea of ‘revolution’, which in a ‘good cause’ was justified in inflicting huge levels of violence on its own people, because in order to bring that ‘good’ into reality in the shortest possible time then large numbers of individual lives would have to be immediately changed; and those lives that ‘just didn’t get it’ had to be eliminated by the dedicated cadres of the revolution who did indeed ‘get it’, and the whole bloody thing justified in the name of the revolution’s ‘good’ intentions and its ‘good’ objectives.

Compared to the complex machinery constructed by the Framers precisely to prevent such revolutionary ‘waves’ from building up, steps of procedure and consensus-building designed to ‘baffle’ both calculating wealthy power and the unchecked emotions of vast numbers of the citizenry … compared to that, the ‘efficiency’ of a well-guided revolution and its relatively few but dedicated cadres stood out as a political ‘improvement’ as great as Henry Ford’s awesome assembly lines and Taylor’s ‘efficiency’ methods. Just as no ordinary citizen could build his own car, so – the unconscious assumption of the age figured – no ordinary citizen could keep a ‘country’ running at peak efficiency for the common weal.

And then, based in part on what had been learned from American advertising (designed to motivate ‘consumers’ to buy whatever the company that hired the advertiser was trying to sell), the Nazis – embodied in the dark brilliance of Josef Goebbels – mastered the technique of manipulating public opinion for their Party’s purposes. ‘Truth’ as a stand-alone went away; “truth is what the Party thinks is good for the German people” as the Nazis boasted.

Manipulation in the service of economic advantage shaded over into manipulation for political support – and later, for political control.

It was a poisonous century, the 20th, and although America didn’t get bombed, it got poisoned. And so deeply, in the mind, that nobody noticed it. If there was poison, it was from atomic fallout that the Russkies would deliver, or from space aliens who showed up as pods or reptilian creatures or imperial adventurers from Hollywood’s idea of ancient Rome. But ‘we ourselves’ weren’t poisoned. And neither were all those biggies – those ‘professionals’ – to whom We had left the running of the country.

As Lenin and Stalin and the Nazis saw, there was no requirement in their visions and schemes for Citizens. The citizenry would be the great patient beast, flattered and amused and excited by spectacles or distracted and worked up into a frenzy by ‘emergencies’, and the job of the great lumbering thing would be – like the oxen and the buffalo – simply to provide the wherewithal which the real ‘elites’ needed to run their game-plans in economy, politics, foreign affairs, and general societal restructuring. A ‘Citizen’ would only be in the way.

A ‘Citizen’ would ask questions, ask to see information, and generally look under the hood, test-drive, kick tires. A ‘Citizen’ would talk with other ‘Citizens’ and share the fruits of deliberation with everyone (ideally, ‘everyone else’ was also a ‘Citizen’, but it’s not an ideal world).

The government modus operandi came to be based on the idea that you could fool most of the citizenry most of the time, and cow or co-opt a lot of the rest, and that was usually good enough. ‘Good enough’, as they say in the Beltway and the military-industrial complex, ‘for government work’.

And in the Sixties of the 20th century, not only ‘government’ but also ‘concerned’ folks of a theoretically Liberal bent and purpose decided that this would work for a genuinely ‘good’ cause (as if anybody had ever gotten up in the morning dedicated to a ‘bad’ cause). A whole bunch of ‘good’ causes, as it turned out. And thus Liberals abandoned the vision of 19th century Liberalism and also the vision of the Framers: they would themselves organize as the Soviets and – ummmm – the post-Weimar German government had organized, only this time in a ‘good’ cause. Secular modern America would adopt – without acknowledgement – a Catholic idea: you could ‘baptize’ something out of sin and into ‘good’. Not ‘souls’ – which was the key to the Catholic vision – but techniques. After all, if Lincoln could say with bemused pride after the Civil War that ‘we’ owned the song ‘Dixie’ now, then Americans could say after they had beaten the Nazis and supplied the Soviets, that they ‘owned’ all those techniques and handbooks from the various Propaganda Ministries of the defeated enemy.

And so, in best Saturday matinee style, the alien substance was eagerly brought ‘back to town’; the vampire wasn’t invited into the house, it was dragged in eagerly.

So here We are.

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