The Big Meh

(this is the first piece I have written in a long time that may actually deserve an editor but who? and where would a I submit anyways? and who would publish?)

I'm starting to resent my alienation from mainstream political discourse almost more than I believe I am justified in feeling alienated by mainstream political discourse. Boring, this desire to throw rocks at television screens I don't own. Maybe I should. That would be an adventure, though probably a painful one.

Stupidly, I continue to hold on to the idea that there should be more to human existence than the challenge of achieving a sedate, middle-class life. Not that I am necessarily against marriage, or having children, or having a nice house with a nice backyard and maybe a sofa in front of a TV or whatever, but I can't help but feel that the pursuit of these pleasures, and their contingency as social "goods", allows myself, and certainly others, to evade a much more substantial question than "how best are these pleasures achieved?": fundamentally, what is humanity's dream at this point ( especially for those of us in the West who are not religious)? Of course, I don't really expect a politician to answer that question, to even ask that question, and yet, I can't help feeling that there is no moving on, no real notions of "progress" without an ability to re-imbue humanity with the special sense of purpose that religion used to provide. 

As far as I can tell, our purpose as a nation, at best, at least according to the most "visionary" of those politicians seeking the Democratic nomination for the presidency, is to include as many people into this aforementioned vision of middle-class life as possible, which is why I found nothing to believe in while watching this evening's debates.

Perhaps one of the best essays I have read to address these concerns is, amusingly enough, not found on an obscure blog somewhere, nor in the published works of some social theorist or philosopher, but rather in the introduction to the music critic Ian MacDonald's book on The Beatles, Revolution in the Head. I won't attempt to summarize all of the insights contained in the essay, but I do want to at least offer a pertinent idea. According to MacDonald, the true revolutionaries of the 1960s were not the hippies nor the New Left, but rather, simply put, "ordinary people". To MacDonald, the revolution  in question was the throwing off of all the shackles of institutional demands, especially those of the church, to pursue a life of selfish materialism totally divorced from the cultural commons, a life suddenly available to millions after the modernization of production caused by World War II and the surplus of productive capacity now necessarily put to different use. 

In the context of MacDonald's argument, which can be read here, and which I find convincing, though incomplete (the author, British, underestimated the rise of the religious right in America), what passed for political debate this evening was, actually, profoundly anti-political. Rather than politics or government or a nation being called upon to achieve some profound feat that expands boundaries and notions of what it is to be human, what it is to live and to have a life (individual, social, national, global), rather, the usual and unusual, new and old, bugbears are brought forth as a list of reasons as to why those want to pursue a life dedicated to the pursuit of their own pleasure are unable to do so. Wether it's Wall Street or guns or racism or Iran, any issue raised is merely seen in context as something that prevents us from achieving the simultaneously modest yet profoundly nihilistic dream of simply not caring about anyone else and living our own lives.

I am eagerly awaiting, and expect I will be waiting a few more years at least, Rick Perlstein's sequel to The Invisible Bridge, the third in his series of books covering the rise of the post-Goldwater right in America, but I already feel as if I have a premonition of the symbolic value of Ronald Reagan's presidential victory in 1980, a topic I expect he will cover in his next book. More than a culmination of the demographic realignment of voter/party affiliations started during Lyndon Johnson's time in the Oval Office, a realignment hastened by Nixon and the tumultuous 1968 election, Reagan's true victory was his seemingly-permanent codification of the present language of national politics. After Reagan, there is no questioning of middle class values, no possibility of imagining a different world.

And so we get Bernie Sanders' tiresome fulminations against Wall Street, whose penchant for greed (or inevitable search for profit, necessary for the perpetuation of capitalism), is now only problematic because that search for profit has no longer yielded positive changes in the material conditions of the middle class (and there are probably structural and inevitable reasons for this, impossible to understand without explaining that globalization, and its attendant wars, may have been an attempt to extend American middle-class prosperity, not undermine it). We get arguments about gun control that, at best, mention mental illness, but, of course, never call into question what may lead to this illness, the empty a-spirituality of middle-class life, the relentless competition and conformity and dark hatreds that lie just under the surface of middle-class normalcy. We get the same platitudes about supporting our troops while not supporting war that evade both the enormous class difference between those who serve and those who are served, and the responsibility that, you guessed it, the middle class of the United States will never bear for the fact that, due to their votes, we fought these "wrong" wars in the first place. We get conversations about extending free college education to all Americans without taking into account that, amongst the middle class, a BA is now common enough to force many looking for economic stability to take on more debt to pursue Masters degrees, and that even more BA holders entering the workforce will force even more people to do the same. 

As for the environment, the most important issue, the discussion of which was instigated by a question from a voter, not by any of the moderators, this issue was handled the same way it always is: technology will fix it, you don't have to live differently. As wages have been, basically, stagnant since the 1970s, the entire expansion of the American economy has been based on people taking on debts to buy things they don't need. If people were to stop buying things they didn't need (and taking on debts to do it), the economy would collapse (and 2008 can be seen as the limit to the debt-financed phase of middle-class expansion). How, exactly, can this be reconciled with any (last-ditch) attempt to "save the planet"?

During the debate, the following question was asked "what is the biggest national security threat to the United States"? Sitting in a room with a few friends, I answered "the American middle class". My answer is easy to caricature, the flatulence of a disillusioned, self-hating, middle-class American Leftist. And yet, taking into account the answers given by the candidates this evening: we're in the Middle East to perpetuate middle-class life. We trade with China to perpetuate middle-class life, and our environment is a wreck because of middle-class life. Iraq is a mess: we went there out of middle-class fear and left because of middle-class impatience. 

(perhaps a good paragraph is needed here to provide a better set-up for the below)

My fellow Americans, we are not the ones we have been waiting for. I'm not sure we've even been waiting.

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