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(Why) Americans Are Too Busy Reacting to Authoritarianism to Act Against It

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Why Aren’t American’s Interested in Why Their Society’s Collapsing?

Here’s a tiny observation.

Americans have become reactionaries — whether they know it or not. They are always desperately, furiously reacting. Alarmed, shocked, baffled, outraged by the day’s latest, and usually terrible, events. A school shooting, camps being built, a President insulting Canada, elections being hacked, the list is endless. But to react is, at best, to play defense, and at worst, to be manipulated, something like a marionette on a string. Having become reactionaries, what Americans aren’t anymore is authors of their own destiny as a nation.

Here’s how the cycle goes. The authoritarians say something, do something, terrible. They separate mothers and kids, put kids in camps, and so on. Americans respond with sudden disbelieving explosions of outrage, fury, despair, anxiety, dread, denial, bewilderment. But the common thread is that they react. The authoritarians laugh, mock, taunt. The very next day is the same — but worse. What else would it be, if a society is only ever always reacting? Yet doesn’t that reactionary cycle define American life now?

Why is that? Why are Americans trapped in this spin cycle of reacting desperately, furiously, anxiously, a little too late, every single day, to the ills of authoritarianism — which also means that they can’t ever really act against it? After all, if all that Americans can do is react to authoritarianism’s daily transgressions, each one a little more terrible and violent than the last, then authoritarianism will surely win, because it is constantly pushing the bar down into the abyss. So until and unless Americans can explain authoritarianism, instead of react to it, they will simply have no power over it. If you cannot explain a thing, if you do not understand what causes it, but are only ever responding to its effects — what power do you really have? You are impotent — just as Americans find themselves today.

Hence, the desperate, futile spin cycle of reaction in America today tells us something interesting and I think a little important. Americans aren’t very interested in why their society is collapsing — only in the daily news of its collapse. Collapse porn is a great business, these days. Doesn’t that strike you as odd? Funny? Strange? Maybe now you see my point. You are right to say that I am asking a kind of meta-question of meta-ethics, a question about a question, which makes it even more unlikely that Americans will be interested in it. But to me, it is one of the greatest questions of all.

Perhaps you think I am being unkind. Americans already know what caused their society to collapse, you say — authoritarianism! You dummy! Why are you asking us such useless questions?! Get real! Be helpful! Be pragmatic!! Sorry, but that is not what I mean at all. That is circular logic.

Authoritarianism is only the the flood, not the storm. It’s the mechanism of collapse — but not the cause. What caused it? What gave rise to it? What enabled it? What fed and nurtured it? How did it come to be? Whose job was it to prevent it? All these questions should be being asked in America today — but they are not. Go ahead and ask yourself: why is that American intellectuals and thinkers and politicians and leaders have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of exactly why their society is collapsing? If you look closely, apart from the cycle of daily outraged reaction to authoritarianism — they have nothing to say about why, how, when, where, in what way, it all started, at all. But that is exactly the problem — not the solution.

So. Why aren’t Americans more interested in why their society’s collapsing? And no, the following answers don’t cut it. Racism, greed, hate, class warfare, all the usual suspects. That is because they have all existed in America (and elsewhere) forever, but collapse is happening only now. So while of course they play a role, none of these can be the prime mover.

One obvious answer is that America has long had a virulent kind of anti-intellectualism in it. Of course, this is one the causes of collapse. But it is also behind American not even being interested in the explanations of collapse. That anti-intellectualism we’ve seen at work, you and I, our whole lives, if we look closely. It is a kind of patriarchy, anti-intellectualism — don’t think too hard! If you do, you might see: the system has never really made much sense. Yet the logical result of anti-intellectualism is that America is a nation that doesn’t have intellectuals, really — it has pundits. And the job of a pundit is not to tell the truth — but to spin it.

Punditry is of course a product of capitalism, which is the second reason I think Americans aren’t interested in why their society’s collapsing. Pundits are effectively salesmen for capitalism’s ills. Their job is to convince people that what is bad for them is good for them, and what is good for capitalism is always the best thing of all for everyone. You might dispute that, but you can simply ask yourself if you’ve ever really heard an American pundit challenge any aspect of capitalism whatsoever with any real degree of vigour. So another reason Americans aren’t interested in their own society’s collapse is that capitalism minimizes their interest in anything but what’s immediately profitable. But the problem is that a society cannot survive like that, because thinking certainly doesn’t qualify.

And that brings me to the third reason I think Americans aren’t interested in why their society’s collapsing. They can’t afford to be. They’re living right at the edge of life and death. Who has time, energy, or a reason, really, to think about these abstractions of “society”, “collapse”, “the future”, and “progress”? If you are working 12 hours a day just to put food on the table, and educate your kids, then ethics come last — and meta-ethics, the whys and wherefores of it all, are a laughable thing to worry about at all.

It is in this deeper way that I think American society has really failed. It’s one thing for a society to collapse. But it’s another thing for people in a society to be something like mute recipients of tragedy, passive receptacles of their own demise, unable to discern, or even ask themselves about, the reason behind it all. And it’s another thing still for that to be the only thing people allow each other to be. When all those things are true, then collapse will harden into something worse — implosion, which is what is happening now. But that is a subject for another essay.

All I want to say in this one is this.

It strikes me every day now, a little more, this reactionary cycle that Americans are trapped in. Like most cycles, it gets harder to break every time. Yet I don’t think that Americans see this at all yet — that they are trapped in just such a classic cycle of reaction to abusers, which means that they are stuck in an abusive relationship, essentially.

The point is to break it. To really defeat authoritarianism takes an active, not just a reactive, stance. It means not just responding with outrage, alarm, and shock, playing defense, as it were, against the opposition — but acting. Acting how? For what? For whom? What does “acting against authoritarianism” really mean?

It means this. Offering a positive, transformative, unifying vision for a broken society. Crafting a new social contract. A grand new bargain. A sweeping new compact. Made of new rights, institutions, obligations, duties, public goods, services, agreements, and interests, which genuinely better people’s lives again. That is the only thing in history, which has really brought down authoritarians.

Funnily, sadly, tragically, nobody of consequence or power in American life is remotely interested in doing that. And that is because they are all are too busy desperately, furiously reacting to act.

 June 2018

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