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Friday, May 18, 2007

"United States of Alzheimer's"

On May 16, Studs Terkel turned 95. He is precious. You may want to listen to his interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!. The first time I taught Introduction of Political Economy at the University of Massachusetts, thanks to Steve Cohn's sound advice, I used interviews from his Working:What People do all Day and How They Feel About What They Do to illustrate and give concreteness to the various class structures (slave-labor, wage-labor, serf-labor, independent, and cooperative) within which working people participate.

A strong feeling of nostalgia towards the New Deal, to the Works Project Administration permeates the conversation. At some point, he speaks of the New Deal as an Utopian moment:
And then came the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Henry Wallace, especially. And here came the jobs, the WPA of Harry Hopkins, Work Projects Administration. That meant work for men, for shovels -- also arts projects. There were artists and painters and dancers and singers. And this was all part of the New Deal.
In a sense, this reminded me once more that it is necessary to begin to understand what the New Deal means for the American Unconscious. Perhaps, it is the intimate alterity, the extimacy that haunts the hegemonic capitalism in the USA. The Social Security and its pay-as-you-go system is only one of the many institutional components of this American style "communism." Perhaps, it is the only one that is remaining. It was the institutional architecture (constructed by the nameless social engineers trained in the tradition of Dewey, Veblen, Commons style American pragmatism/institutionalism) of the New Deal and not necessarily post-war Keynesianism that which helped capitalism get out of the Great Depression and laid down the social technologies that enabled the petroleum-fueled post-war "Golden Age of Capitalism" (or, to borrow Tim Mitchell's terminology, carbon capitalist democracy). The extent to which these institutions are entrenched within the social formation can be gauged by the inability of the neoliberal counter-revolution to fully dislodge its key institution, the Social Security.

How does Social Security (in its pay-as-you-go version) count as a communist moment at the heart of this carbon capitalism? Simply because it enacts (as if it is a most reasonable and practical idea) the very communist axiom of "from those who can (the workers and the corporations) to those who need (the elderly, the disabled, etc.)". Without doubt, this is not a type of communism that I will be satisfied with. And, my aim is certainly not to perpetuate a new New Deal nostalgia. Yet, at the same time, when Studs Terkel complains about the social amnesia produced by the so-called "liberal" media and re-names the States as the United States of Alzheimer's (humorously modifying Gore Vidal's the United States of Amnesia), it is impossible to not to think of the strange and evasive way in which the American public relates to the New Deal.

Perhaps a half a decade ago, while cooking together with fellow blogger bigbadbull at our then Northampton ("Soviet Graves 1") residence, in the heat of the moment I claimed that Liberalism, as it is understood in the United States and perhaps best embodied in the public spirit of the New Deal, is the far most left position that one can feasibly take within the American political landscape. This is undoubtedly incorrect and the remaining portions of this posting will make it clear why it is so. Nevertheless, today, I would still insist on proposing the following modified hypothesis: The New Deal Liberalism constitutes the very frame of reference of a broadly defined American Left (and dialectically speaking the American Right). I would count the civil rights movement as an extension of the New Deal Liberalism. (So does, I think, Lars von Triers in his Manderlay, the second installment of his American trilogy). Even the radical left in the US (e.g., the new left of the Sixties), in its critique of the Soviet model, in its distance from Eurocommunism, and in its awkward relation to Maoism is the shape that the New Deal Liberalism took within the context of the Vietnam War.

In this sense, it would not be far fetched to argue that the New Deal Liberalism holds a place that is similar to the one Kemalism holds in Turkey. Not unlike the New Deal Liberalism, Kemalism determines (and truncates) the very horizon within which left operates within the broader social formation.

Nevertheless, of course, this hypothesis is bound to be proven wrong. There are social movements and political positions articulated within the past and the present of the US that breaks from and is opposed to the State-Capital-Nation knot (to use Karatani's metaphor-concept) of the United States of Alzheimer's even when its is tied together by the ideology of the New Deal Liberalism. Preceding the New Deal, there are the indigenous (or Indian and not Native American as Zizek would prefer to refer to them as, if only to demonstrate once more the stupidity of European settlers-colonialists) movements of resistance (which are themselves could be categorized as communist) against the settler colonization of the continent and, slightly later on, the Shakers who established their Yankee Communes on the basis of radical egalitarianism among genders and races—much before the North decided that it is in its benefit to do so. Again after the Civil War and before the New Deal, there are the Haymarket riots and the anarchists like Sacco and Vanzetti (don't miss the recently produced documentary) who articulated a different vision of solidarity and resistance against the onslaught of capitalism. And then, there is the Black Panther Movement moving beyond the Civil Rights Movement. And then...

Perhaps the others can insert their examples of left movements within the history and the present of the US that articulated/articulates a position beyond and against the State-Capital-Nation knot—even when this knot is articulated within the idiom of the benevolent New Deal Liberalism.

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