1960s >> 1967 >> no-756-august-1967

The American Scene

To properly understand the American scene today, a perspective is necessary that goes deeper than the celebrities and events noted by the newspaper headlines. Superficially, the news seems to be the talk and posturing of the ‘big shots’. When people ask what is going on in the USA they tend to think of these things. Will Bobby Kennedy be able to make enough political capital out of Johnson’s slip in popularity to be nominated by the Democrats in 1968? Who will be the Republican nominee; Romney, Scranton, Reagan, or Nixon? These are thought to be the political questions concerning the American political scene. As for the economic scene, that concerns whether there will be a recession or an inflation. The social scene—why that involves whether women’s hemlines are going up or down. Most people in the USA do not care very deeply—and rightly so— for life will go on pretty much the same.

For those who care about the political questions, it is widely agreed that the answers hinge on the Vietnam war. If, as seems likely, the war continues unabated then Johnson, although he will win the nomination, will lose the election to the Republicans, with Romney a likely standard bearer for the winners. If a truce is reached in Vietnam, then Johnson will win. But insight into the dynamics of American social and political life will not be gained from these ‘newsworthy’ events. The vast majority of the American people, the working class, realise this and give only scant attention to the antics of the professional politicians and their games because they are of only minor entertainment value. Changes in the political bosses of workers are of no more concern to them than are changes in the bosses of the corporations for which they work.

Workers feel powerless to deal with the important questions affecting their lives. So they ‘participate’ in politics only to the extent of investing some emotional energy by identifying with some personality whose victory will give them some vicarious satisfaction. The workers’ sense of powerlessness with respect to events also makes them unconcerned with policy issues concerned with proposals for reform. Middle-level bureaucrats, editorial writers, intellectuals, and all species of ‘middle class’ reformers frequently advance proposals that are intended to solve, within the confine of capitalism, such problems as racial conflicts, riots, decaying cities, unemployment, air pollution, and foreign policy dilemmas. Such people often bemoan the lack of interest among workers for these proposals. Workers, through their experience, have developed a cynicism about such promises and they feel “let those who get paid for it worry about it”.

Outside the small strata of the decision-makers for capitalism, little serious attention is given to the stuff that is served up by the news media as the subject matter of politics. Thus, in one sense, the American scene remains unchanged. The frivolities and gossip that pass for political and social issues are discussed by a small number of those concerned, the masses apathetic; businesses keep on making profits that are quietly pocketed by the ruling capitalist class, and everyone continually faces the problems which the capitalist mode of production makes inevitable. From this perspective American capitalism, like capitalism everywhere, has not changed fundamentally in the past hundred years—only the problems have gotten larger. War, for instance, now threatens to annihilate the human race. Political class consciousness, the conscious desire for Socialism, is still all but non-existent. The American scene, for all its noise, is quiet about Socialism.

Yet this discouraging sameness of the American scene is deceptive. Beneath the surface, the forces that shape American society are at work, ceaselessly changing the foundations. It is not merely that machinery improves, workers become more skilled and new commodities are marketed while capital accumulates. Men’s ideas also change as their conditions of life change.

Ideas about social conventions change — customary formal dress and bathing attire are trivial examples. Ideas about right and wrong change—the propriety of chattel slavery, birth control, and tobacco smoking by women are illustrations. However, so far these changes in ideas have stopped short of rejecting the assumptions of capitalist ideology. Before there can be a change in ideas basic to a society, there first must be a crisis of confidence in which the ability of accepted ideas to explain events is disbelieved. There is some evidence that the USA is just starting to enter such a crisis of confidence.

America is the strongest and wealthiest nation in the world—in fact it is the strongest and wealthiest in the history of the world. Its resources and technology are the wonder of the world. By all its own standards US capitalism should be a veritable Utopia. Its propagandists often do talk as if it is a utopia. Yet everywhere there are signs of a growing uneasiness—an increasing realisation that something is deeply wrong. Americans who, in the past, have overwhelming believed that the ‘American way of life’ was the highest goal possible for humanity are now having second thoughts.

Those who speak for capitalism see a shiny future of more consumer gadgets, more and bigger autos crowding more and wider highways at ever-increasing speeds, hurrying more and more people to more box-like houses in the suburbs. This philosophy of more and more of the same is all capitalist ideologists have to offer. More and more people are beginning to wonder if, even were this continuous spiralling of abundance possible, it will provide the answers.

The truth of the matter is that, however successful and secure American capitalism looks at first glance, it is plagued with deep contradictions. These contradictions revolve around the inability of American capitalism, despite its wealth, technology and power, to satisfy human needs. On one hand there is fabulous wealth, on the other hand the most basic of human needs go unsatisfied. Scientists will eventually put a man on the moon but American society cannot perform the simple ask of getting a hungry man with his face pressed against a shop window into contact with the food he needs. Children die of rat bites within sight of the world’s marvels of engineering. The illiteracy rate and the rate of infant mortality of the US are above that of far less advanced nations. Farmers are paid not to produce food while millions in the world are starving.

America is a sick society and this is becoming more apparent with each passing day. An assassin kills a stranger merely because the stranger wanted to help people to vote; the assassin is found guilty, then is given a public welcome as a hero, and then runs for governor of the state! In the world’s most advanced civilisation the city streets are not safe at night. A model ex-marine and boy scout commits mass murder. In spite of massive government effort, rumours concerning the last president’s assassination are given widespread credence. Violence and threats of violence are a continuing part of American life. Police savagely assault and even kill poorer citizens with impunity. Desperate men fight back by striking out at anything within their reach. Large scale armies are regularly deployed in the major cities in the summertime to preserve property and ‘law and order’—the same law and order which created the conditions in the first place. This capitalist ‘utopia’ is becoming a hell of hatred, despair, and violence. This can no longer be ignored and so people, or at least some people, are beginning to lose confidence in the reasonableness of the system.

One of the phrases that is being heard more frequently is the ‘credibility gap’. It originally referred to the disbelief of the government’s statements about the Vietnam war and was then extended to refer to the gap between the pretentions of what the capitalist American way of life stands for and the deeds and actions of that same society. The truth about the war, about the Kennedy assassination, about the relation of cancer to cigarette smoking, about CIA involvement in labour and student activities—or about anything, will not be found in what officials say to the public.

The inability of U S capitalism to solve its contradictions is slowly undermining people’s confidence in its ideology; this is the first step. In the middle ages, feudalism began to crumble before developing capitalism when men became sceptical about the accuracy of its world-view. Don Quixote, the famous book ridiculing feudal values, marked the stage when feudal ideas were being rejected to prepare the way for capitalism. In a similar way, capitalist values are being first weakened, then disbelieved, and finally ridiculed.

In the middle ages it was segments of the intellectuals, lower clergy, and tradesmen who first became disenchanted; today it is mainly segments of the youth. One small stratum, those known as ‘hippies’, have openly rejected, in their disgust, most of the traditional values of bourgeois society. A somewhat larger segment, the ‘new left’, has undertaken political action avowedly against the system; although, unfortunately, it does not understand the system well enough to take effective action against it. But beyond those observedly alienated from capitalist ideology, there are widespread misgivings among almost all youth. There is a growing crisis of confidence about capitalist ideology.

This is not to say that all these doubts have led any significant numbers of people to explicitly reject capitalism and to become socialists. This is where we American socialists come in. The great challenge of the times is in hastening the development of a socialist consciousness that is the prerequisite of Socialism. The SEVEN DAYS FOR SOCIALISM will find us carrying on as usual with our propaganda activities in Boston, New York, and a few other scattered areas. We have accomplished no momentuous things, nor do we expect to do so in the near future. We take heart with the thought that, although our numbers are insignificant, our ideas will triumph. The intellectual bankruptcy of capitalism— and its phoney ‘radical’ critics—assure our success.

William Jerome