The good fight: the case for socialism in the twenty-first century.
Any survey of the bipartisan crusade for a New World Order, and of the prospects for democratic socialism in the twenty-first century, must acknowledge both the clearest and fiercest continuing class struggles, and the most elusive and evolutionary forms of social change. Peter Berger, in his book Pyramids of Sacrifice, wrote: "A humanistic approach to development policy (and just as much to the other areas of politically con, trolled social change) will be based on the insight that no social progress can succeed unless it is illuminated with meaning from within." Within and between persons, taking care to tell our stories as truly as we know how, and to hear each other out.
The surveyor must disavow any claim to Olympian objectivity; even the Greek gods acted with all-too-human motives. Politics is not simply biography writ large, but my own motives for being a democratic socialist have much to do with the working, and middle-class struggles of my own family, with growing up in the Caribbean and South America, with my resistance to the draft during the Vietnam War, with the lives and stories of my friends and comrades, and with my work as a gay health-care activist during the AIDS epidemic. My motives have much to do with experiences such as visiting the Terezin prison camp and crematory with my Jewish lover; climbing a mountain overlooking the Incan city of Machu Picchu with my dad; and keeping vigil beside too many dying friends.
Those are all experiences of human limits and possibilities. I have yet to find a good reason why the particular provincialism of the American ruling class and its technical advisers is essentially more "objective" and "universal" than my own experience --or that of a Philippine sex worker or of a Danish lesbian doctor or of a Guatemalan peasant. I don't claim that God, History, or Science is on the side of democracy and socialism, and I am mightily impressed by the great number of human sacrifices which parties and states have made to those and other bloody idols in this century. Socialism will never provide heaven on earth, but a decent degree of communal care and peace is possible.
The New World Order is a sin against basic human solidarity. That amounts to a confession of faith: I do believe the most persuasive arguments for socialism are fundamentally moral. If anyone should insist on a "scientific" rationale for socialism--an orthodox Marxist, perhaps, or an orthodox monetarist--then the answer must be: no such science exists for human choice and action, especially as human nature is always socially potential and emergent. Does this disclaimer leave socialists all at sea, in dark and fog, and without map or compass? On the contrary. All opinions are not created equal, and distinctions will still be made between truth and falsehood. Loyalty to a cause becomes dangerously sectarian, however, whenever exclusive claims are made to religious or scientific authority. Paul Goodman wrote: "In a culture a superstition may have an overwhelming social consensus and so predetermine all thought and literature, like religion in ages of faith or the present-day belief in the omnicapability of Scientific Method to deliver truth or happiness"
The New World Order is founded upon belief in the Holy Trinity of capitalism, science, and democracy--an occult unity of absolute and equivalent values. Any doubt cast upon one of the three is therefore a failure of faith in the Three-in-One. Though the very words New World Order became part of the Republican rhetorical arsenal as communist regimes began collapsing in 1989 and thereafter, the doctrine itself is still substantially expounded by the current Democratic administration. And the New World Order is not, in fact, all that new. The doctrine was most clearly crystallized during the early Cold War as a deliberate counterresponse to the decolonization of the Third World. Thus George Kennan, in a US. State Department document not intended for public consumption, wrote in 1948:
We have about 50% of the world's wealth, but only 6.3%
of its population.... In this situation, we cannot fail to
be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in
the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships
which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity
without positive detriment to our national security. To
do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality
and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated
everywhere on our immediate national objectives.
We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford
the luxury of altruism and world benefaction. We should
cease to talk about vague and ... unreal objectives such
as human rights, the raising of living standards, and
democratization. The day is not far off when we are going
to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we
are hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.
In this elite and esoteric form, the doctrine is more plainly unitarian in its focus on power and wealth. Science properly serves the rich and mighty, and democracy for the great majority beyond our borders is "day-dreaming" The frank totalitarian tendency of such an ideology would have shocked many Americans who had just fought a war against fascism; they might well have wondered whether such a doctrine would not also undermine democracy at home. So when Kennan wrote we, he really meant those already in the know. His message to the inner circle of policymakers was plain: let's drop the pretense with each other; let's dare to be what we already are. Of course, folks like George Kennan, Henry Kissinger, and Elliot Abrams have always allowed themselves great tactical latitude in the pursuit of Realpolitik. Therefore, in domestic political campaigns and international diplomacy, even "sentimentality" and "unreal objectives such as human rights" may have great utility.
Reign of Terror
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the daily news brought images of Turkish immigrants selling chunks of rubble as keepsakes to tourists. And in the reunited fatherland, the sporadic fascist assaults on such immigrants became more frequent and better organized. The German government proved more efficient in restricting immigration than in prosecuting right-wing terrorists. The wall came down, but social and ethnic fault-lines running deep through Europe began to grind and slip again, dividing Czechoslovakia with relatively peaceful tremors but shaking apart Yugoslavia like a jigsaw puzzle. Ultranationalism and racism are resurgent in Moscow, Berlin, and Paris; many of their Balkan victims already lie buried in mass graves.
Since the collapse of Soviet and European communist regimes in 1989 and thereafter, a brave new world of capitalism without borders has been proclaimed by any number of pundits, professors, and politicians. And it's true that the communist regimes in Asia are unlikely to last another generation; the Cuban regime may fold much sooner. Yet a global "free market" remains a capitalist myth; it serves as a fighting faith, in this respect much like communism. Faith can indeed move mountains--and bury millions of people. The corporate hunt both for new markets and for the cheapest labor power on earth (whether this "human resource" is found in Bangladesh or Bulgaria) can only be justified as a mission of mercy if citizens can be convinced that the profit motive works like the hidden hand of God. If run-away factories create disaster areas in American cities, and if Mexican peasants are driven to desperate rebellion, that is rough justice in the greater cause of progress. It's rank heresy, of course, to compare the juggernaut of capital in any way with the "command economies" of communism, although the technocratic imperative is striking in both cases.
At a symposium last year on terrorism and the media, Alexander Cockburn addressed the economic violence of the New World Order. He had taken another look at Walt Rostow's 1960 book The Stages of Economic Growth: An Anti-Communist Manifesto, in which Rostow predicted worldwide capitalist prosperity. That utopian vision, Cockburn noted, has been "thoroughly negated by reality" over three decades and more:
The economic strangulation of the developing world is
manifestly a form of terrorism. When the International
Monetary Fund (IMF) imposes an austerity policy on
a country to ensure that the country's debts to the developed
world can continue to be repaid, they don't proceed
to the armory, remove the guns, and fire on the people.
Sometimes the program has to be enforced by guards,
men and soldiers who do use guns to quell the protests
of the people. But more often, the program simply
removes more and more wealth from the people and ships
it north to the United States, Europe, or Japan.
Short of some miraculous change in hearts and minds and power--and even then, given present conditions--millions will continue to suffer and die in degradation for years to come. In such a world, moral complexity and a tragic sense of life are often used as the best possible excuse to do nothing, to resign oneself even to sufferings which are in no way necessary. Many affluent citizens have been raised to believe they deserve a good conscience; and their howls of pain about "political correctness," "reverse racism," and "multicultural brainwashing" are really a demand for a good conscience. That product, too, must be reliably supplied in the New World Order.
No political faction is above criticism and satire, of course. But the term politically correct was first used by progressives with a sense of humor for the very purpose of self-criticism: something the far right might also emulate. Instead, the term is now used as an automatic weapon which rarely hits a target but makes lots of distracting noise. Campus codes against abusive speech and epithets suddenly inspire ultra-conservatives to crusade for free speech--not that such folks are converting to consistent First Amendment libertarianism or joining the American Civil Liberties Union in droves. Indeed, they favor censorship when it's a question of including any mention of condoms or gay people in a public-school curriculum. Rush Limbaugns yahooism is simply the quintessence of such "common sense"--a populist entertainment which lets the elites get the last laugh. For those with deeper qualms and more genteel tastes, the social gospel according to Buckley, D'Souza, Fukuyama, and Friedman should also restore peace of mind.
The mass media reliably provide the right mix of sensationalism and sedation. There are even "exposures" of massacres in Central America, pharmaceutical profiteering during an epidemic, and the staggering savings-and-loan swindle. But this news often comes very late, or in a manner which reduces systematic crimes and chronic crises to isolated and incoherent spectacles. Though many citizens dislike politicians and distrust corporations, the capitalist system as a whole is generally presented and accepted both as an irresistible force of nature and as the very embodiment of scientific progress. Are most citizens just stupid? Not at all, and therefore the populace is bombarded with sufficient truth and falsehood to leave them troubled but ill-informed. And--this question always follows--is capitalism really such a singular and coherent conspiracy? Again, not at all; though it is undeniable that groups in power often do conspire, sometimes even against each other, and that the major media are beholden to corporate and bipartisan interests.
Members of the underclass, alas, are not habitual watchers of the network news, nor regular readers of the bourgeois press--so far beyond ideological control that they may even join urban insurrections. Apocalyptic ultra-left romanticism about such events is morally atrocious, but so are sermons about "savages" which do not acknowledge the systematic savagery of our class and racial system. In fact, the reasons for such rage are obscured by the media spectacle, the editorial homilies, and the babble of pundits; and many white citizens find much more comfort in a passing riot than they would in any serious and disciplined revolutionary movement among African-Americans.
Within these borders, the New World Order means a sharp increase in the same old law and order, a greater number of police and prisons. At a recent socialist forum, Dr. Manning Marable said, "The U.S. penal system is a warehouse for the control and domination of the surplus army of labor, and 60 percent of black men now in jail were unemployed at the time of arrest." Reverence for the death penalty is, of course, a bipartisan article of faith which Clinton underscored when he "interrupted" his presidential campaign by going home to Arkansas to give his approval to an execution.
At the end of the twentieth century, America's rulers should find inspiration in the words of Josef de Maistre, the early nineteenth-century ideologist of feudal reaction: "All grandeur, all power and subordination rests on the executioner. He is the horror and bond of all human association. Remove this incomprehensible agent from the world and at that very moment order gives way to chaos, thrones topple, and society disappears." The only thing de Maistre cared to salvage from the French Revolution was the Reign of Terror--but fully restored in all its ancient mass sacrificial splendor under God the Father, rather than limited to the mere 10,000 or so victims claimed in passing by the Goddess of Reason.
In America, we now have over 2,700 people on death row, but many more die yearly under the existing reign of everyday misery and violence within the inner cities. Yet terrorism, we are told, always means something else: the Shining Path in Peru, Iraq invading Kuwait, the bombing of the World Trade Center.... The American public was informed that Saddam Hussein supported an assassination attempt against President Bush, and President Clinton dutifully fired missiles on Baghdad. Civilians were killed, and that fact served the Iraqi regime. But "surgical strikes" are not always possible in the great cause of counterterrorism. Clinton is neither a secure anti-militarist nor a secure "military man," and with the stigma of draft-dodging and loving queers more than Uncle Sam, he went very far to prove a point: I am the commander-in-chief.
NAFTA and "Unlikely Allies"
Under a bipartisan capitalist system, it's not surprising that Clinton and other "centrist" Democrats are loyal to the New World Order of "free trade and democracy"--ever the same mind-numbing mantra. One of the clearest recent proofs was Clinton's campaign for the North American Free Trade Agreement. In a front-page story, "President Emerges As a Tough Fighter," in the November 18, 1993, issue of the New York Times, R. W Apple wrote:
Against the odds, with unlikely conservative Republican
allies, he forged a narrow but solid majority that included
more Republicans than Democrats. In political
terms, it was the most important achievement of his
Presidency... Mr. Clinton retreated early on Bosnia,
on Haiti, on homosexuals in the military, on important
elements of his economic plan; he seemed ready to compromise
on all but the most basic elements of his health-care
reforms. Critics asked whether he had a bottom line
on anything. On NAFTA, he did, and that question
won't be asked much for awhile.
But Clinton's allies were not at all "unlikely." NAFTA underscores the "bottom line" of Democratic centrism--a "center" which the advancing Republicans moved ever farther to the right under Reagan and Bush. Clinton helped create the "pragmatic" policy of retreat which is the raison d'etre of the Democratic Leadership Council and which leaves both parties moving ever more closely in the same direction: populist in rhetoric, capitalist in reality. Clinton headed the DLC before he ran for president, but he has released a political genie he cannot now control. As reported in the December 5, 1993, New York Times, the new chair of the DLC, Representative Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma, now claims that the Clinton administration is betraying the cause. McCurdy's defense of the centrist faith rings out in clear Republican accents:" And it is our job to fight those who would water down our agenda, who would turn national service into an entitlement, who would turn welfare reform into a handout, who would turn health care into a Government bureaucracy."
The same article reports Al From, the DLC's president, urging the party "to hang on to the suburban moderates who voted for Clinton or Ross Perot in the last election but might be tempted in 1996 to back a Republican." In From's own words, "Middle-class voters are the mega-prize of American politics" Questioning the moderation of the middle class is an unthinkable violation of objective journalism. Thus bipartisan "centrism" functions without any crass dictatorial censorship. Rather, the major media collaborates in the steady repair and re-creation of the New World Order.
NAFTA contains protectionist elements favoring U.S. corporations which don't square neatly with free-trade orthodoxy. No surprise there. Writing in the january 1994 issue of Z Magazine, Noam Chomsky noted the twists and turns of the media on this issue:
"In Twist, Protectionism Is Used to Sell Trade Pact" the
Times proclaimed with wonder, discovering what both
critics and advocates of the "Trade Pact" had been
shouting from the rooftops for a year. The protectionist
features of NAFTA had been "negotiated by the Bush
administration out of political necessity to drum up corporate
support," economic correspondent Keith Bradsher
reported, but "went largely unnoticed until recently,
when they began to attract criticism from abroad, notably
Clinton denounced the "naked pressure" and "real rough, shod, muscle-bound tactics" of labor lobbyists against NAFTA, rallying Congress "to resist the hardball politics" and threats of withheld campaign contributions and endorsements. The Wall Street Journal likewise contrasted corporate finesse with prole bullying and attacked "the muscle-flexing by the broad antitrade coalition" including anyone who dared to say that NAFTA is designed "for the benefit of multinational corporations. " Slanderous and scandalous! Though the Times editorialized about an "unsettling pattern" of financial contributions from labor to opponents of NAFTA, corporate contributions to NAFTA's supporters required no mention: "All the News That's Fit to Print."
Our social and economic system is not an unfractured monolith, and purely distinct ideological factions within classes and parties are rare. There are some important conservative dissenters from the bipartisan consensus in favor of NAFTA. They include Patrick Buchanan and Ross Perot, a theocrat and a technocrat respectively; we can expect such diversity within any emergent isolationist camp. Perot, the billionaire "populist," is a good example of that sector of the ruling class whose profits and power are based primarily within our borders; their nationalism tends to be genuinely conservative. Corporate inter, nationalism, on the contrary, has a driving revolutionary logic of its own which is more consistent with military interventions. The chemistry between isolationism and imperialism is as unresolved as that between theocracy and technocracy. That compound is volatile even within many individuals, and it is potentially explosive between and beyond our borders.
President Reagan identified the old Soviet Union as an evil empire. Soviet imperialism was quite real, and so is American imperialism even now--especially now, when U.S. corporations are making avid forays into new territories. Western consumer goods will come at a very high price for the workers of countries such as Russia, Romania, and Bosnia; investors prefer "stability," even if its guardians are totalitarian. In Russia, many would prefer Boris Yeltsin as a business partner; but since Zhirinovsky's ultranationalist party gained almost a quarter of the vote in the December 1993 parliamentary elections, they may deal even with a man who meets with German fascist leaders and who claims he wants Alaska back. (We'll see if Zhirinovsky and his kind are hyenas or foxes. Those who rise to power on a wave of panic and injured pride can still deliver workers to internal and international bosses at abysmal wages.)
On the front page of the December 14 New York Times, Serge Schmemann fairly stuttered that Zhirinovsky "could well be dismissed as a crude parody of a primitive right-winger, fired by self-pity and primitive nationalism" (emphasis added)--but for the fact he won so many votes. But when have we ever read about the primitive nationalism of Reagan, of Bush, and--yes, indeed--of Clinton on the front page of the Times? In the same issue, Steve Erlanger wrote:
Those Russians who were not so alienated that they
stayed away from the polls delivered a stinging slap [to
Yeltsin], demonstrating popular unhappiness, unease, and
misery at the collapse of even the cold comforts of creaking
socialism. Some new form of totalitarianism is a real danger when people are trapped between the falling debris of communism and the rising edifice of capitalism.
The dogmas of free trade have, as Chomsky wrote in Z, "only limited relevance to an international economy of a corporate mercantilist character with vast state intervention" And the "free press" still remains free to those who own one, often serving to silence voices and erase events which are too disorderly in the New World Order--until such time as they cannot be ignored. Thus the major media and journals gave barely a hint of the mass demonstrations in Mexico against NAFTA--until January 1, 1994, when an armed uprising occurred in the state of Chiapas, timed by rebel leaders to coincide with the implementation of NAFTA, which they described as "a death certificate for the Indian peoples of Mexico."
"Left Behind, Mexico's Indians Fight the Future." That headline in the New York Times on january 9, 1994, might just as well have read: "There's no stopping progress " Tim Golden, the correspondent reporting from San Cristobal, one of the towns briefly held by rebels, wondered how long the guerriLlas could put up a fight against national troops: "But it was apparent that the army of mostly uneducated Tzotzil and Tzelkal Indian peasants had already dealt a shattering blow to the central, shining promise of Mexico's Harvard-trained President, Carlos Salinas de Gortari." That "shining promise" is quite simply the international solidarity of corporate capitalism. And for his part, the leader of Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party claimed, "This is not an Indian uprising" blaming radical Catholics and foreign revolutionaries instead. The inauguration of NAFTA, Golden noted, "was immediately overshadowed by the first Latin American revolutionary movement of the post-cold-war age." It will not be the last.
The Body Politic
The Body Politic was the name of an extraordinary Canadian gay-liberation journal, and the name itself was inspired. In what nation does the body politic embody any and every body equally? To ask the question is to answer it; therefore that journal was devoted to the radical democratic spirit of Whitman and to the utopian politics of "the body electric." Here was a place where queers refused to be "headed" by any alien authority. We used our own heads, and everything was radically open to question: religion, science, nature, government, society, family, property, public and private life--in fact, many common sense convictions grew uncommonly queer once queers decided to think about them in common. The magazine survived police raids, confiscations, censorship, and several trials in court before finally folding. A very good run.
The body politic figures behind our talk of economies which are growing and healthy, or stunted and sick, as well as behind many metaphors of social infection and corruption. The AIDS epidemic served many demagogues well since it spread first and fastest among queers, drug users, and people of color--in short, among those who might be defined as resident aliens. Indeed, xenophobic nationalism often creates foreign bodies within the body politic, until the social temperature is raised to fever pitch. Biological and medical metaphors of just this kind may be so misleading that we may wish to debunk and banish them entirely. This corrective and critical spirit is evident in works such as Richard Gilman's Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet or Susan Sontag's Illness As Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors.
The edict Sontag delivers, however, must remain an ideal: "The body is not a battlefield " She is wary of militarizing immunology, for example, and of conceiving cells as weapons of attack and defense. Such metaphors, she suggests, may restrict both science and human solidarity.
However we choose to conceive cellular relations, the war on social solidarity had been waged long before it was actually declared at the 1992 Republican National Convention. The bodies of women, workers, people of color, queers, people with AIDS, and the disabled are already the sites of struggle: rape and battering, industrial illness and injuries, racial assaults, queerbashing, and other kinds of physical denial and destruction. In the battle over gays in the military, the bodies of straight men were solicitously shielded from the laser beam of the gay gaze, but the bodies of assaulted and murdered queers generally pass unnoticed as casualties of the cultural war.
Self-defense courses for women and queers, labor strikes and occupations, illegal "squatting" in housing campaigns, health-care movements in which people refuse to be passive objects of medical practice or neglect, direct action against the most reckless corporate destruction of nature--these are all ways of reclaiming both social and bodily integrity. If, in such struggles, the tactic of civil disobedience is ever less than polite, or if property is ever trespassed upon or damaged, then the usual homilies are broadcast from executive suites and the media, all decrying the dismemberment of the very body of democracy. Wholesale corporate cannibalism, however, passes for good manners; and military mayhem in Grenada, Panama, and Waco, Texas, is good exercise.
When the incidence of HIV transmission rose among heterosexuals in this country, the following headlines appeared: "The AIDS epidemic hits home" and "Now no one is safe." As long as homosexuals could be considered culturally "homeless," we could also be considered expendable aliens. Scientific discourse often reinforced our status as "vectors of disease" to the General Public. It was usually left to health activists outside government labs and agencies to make the "unscientific" suggestion that the single greatest cause of the AIDS epidemic was not, in fact, a virus but, rather, the failure of social solidarity both nationally and internationally.
The "war on drugs" is really a war on the poor and has succeeded in demonizing injection-drug users even more than sodomites during the course of the AIDS epidemic. For that very reason, members of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and other community groups initiated some of the earliest syringe-exchange programs in this country. Sharing works to shoot up is an efficient means of transmitting not only hepatitis, endocarditis, and syphilis but also HIV and AIDS. Nationally, over a third of all diagnosed AIDS cases are now related to injection-drug users, their sexual partners, and their children--and the majority of these are African and Latin Americans. Syringe exchanges are no quick fix for drug addiction; such exchanges must be linked to drug treatment on demand and, indeed, to comprehensive and universal health care.
Homelessness, crowded shelters, and inadequate health care now aggravate the emerging epidemic of drug, resistant tuberculosis. The General Public will be tempted to repeat the old magic formula: we are not them. Unlike HIV, however, tuberculosis is not only an "infectious disease," it is truly contagious. The temptation will therefore prove greater to treat the poor and homeless as mere vectors of disease, mere insects and rodents. No science is pure of social content, and epidemiology also has its own ideological formations and applications--especially during epidemics.
In 1989 the Centers for Disease Control proposed a National Action Plan to Combat Multi-Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis (MDR TB). (The CDC never offered an equally coherent plan to combat AIDS; that was left to health activists and--better late than never--the National Commission on AIDS, whose recommendations were resolutely ignored by Reagan and Bush.) At a yearly cost of only $36 million, the CDC projected the eradication of MDR TB in the near future. Though this plan was first backed by the Department of Health and Human Services, the funds necessary to tackle and finish the job have been repeatedly reduced in Congress. Due to the spread of the disease since 1989, an effective program will now cost $484 million or more, according to the CDC. Representative Henry Waxman, chair of the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, announced this October: "All three of the last administrations, on a bipartisan basis, have ignored the warnings of public health experts.... If there were such a thing as public health malpractice, all three administrations would be guilty."
What was once a manageable disease is rapidly becoming an urban epidemic. In this country alone, tuberculosis has increased 20 percent since 1985, and health officials estimate that 15 million people are currently infected. Globally, tuber, culosis will claim 30 million lives over the next 10 years unless there is international cooperation to end the pandemic, according to a World Health Organization report released this past November. Early and consistent treatment for tuberculosis is among the most cost-effective of all medical interventions, but drug-resistant strains of the disease develop when treatment is not completed. People without jobs and homes are often less consistent in keeping medical appointments, especially in those urban areas where clinical facilities, staff, and hours are being cut back.
Why spend more good money on folks who "refuse" to take their prescription? What have such people done to"earn"jobs, homes, and health care? Every epidemic inspires upright politicians and pundits to lament the moral squalor of the underclass and to conclude that such persons are a bad investment. Soon--or rather, once again--we will read and hear demands for the most draconian quarantine measures. We should not be surprised if some of the very people making these demands belong among that select company of collaborators who also helped to make AIDS and drug addiction truly epidemic. Like William Buckley, who once proposed tattooing the arms of injection-drug users and the buttocks of gay men with public health warnings, these savants will claim to serve only the general good of the General Public.
Centrism and Cultural War
One of the first lessons we teach children is "the value of a dollar." This is truly a great mystery, both because all money signifies something greater than itself, and because the very symbols of the Republic printed and minted on common currency are occult to most citizens.
Novus Ordo Seclorum: the phrase is scrolled beneath a pyramid whose base is inscribed with the year 1776 in Roman numerals, and whose apex is the all-seeing Eye of God set within a triangle and between the words Annuit Coeptis. This is one-half of the Great Seal of the United States printed on every dollar bill, and it's a good example of Masonic syncretism, borrowing and blending Roman, Egyptian, and Christian elements. The other half shows a spread eagle grasping olive branch and arrows in its talons, a scrolled E Pluribus Unum in its beak, and the thirteen stars of the colonial states forming one large star above its head.
The Great Seal is a symbolic summary of the Republic--indeed, "two sides of the same coin"--and the very currency of these symbols has worn away much of their significance. A pyramid may seem an odd symbol for a new democratic order, but the founding fathers aimed to reinvent, rather than abolish, social stratification. The American Revolution was not a Masonic conspiracy, but Masonic symbols served well in our national mythology. Masonry--with all its arcane ritual and finery--was a movement of the Enlightenment, and every Masonic lodge was a refuge for the rising fraternity of free-thinking entrepreneurs. The Eye of God in a triangle is the old iconographic sign of God the father in the Christian trinity--as mystic a sign as the more ancient Egyptian Eye of Horus; placed on top of a pyramid, it be, comes the eye of the divine architect. Deism was a good creed for men who aspired to become great builders in their own right. Another motto would have suited them as well: Knowledge Is Power.
E Pluribus Unum is a motto found on dimes as well as dollars. After World War II, a torch of liberty replaced the Roman fasces on dimes, but the imperial Roman insignia of many rods bound up in one still decorates Congress in Washington. Under this sign, Mussolini advanced the fascist "union" of labor and capital and sought to revive Italy's imperial "destiny." We can't really claim fascism descrated the fasces, as the Nazis did the more ancient and widespread swastika; in the past and present, it has always been an appropriate emblem of an imperial republic. Wars, conquest, and slavery must be fully acknowledged in the history of nations and states.
Uniting 13 colonies into the United States, extending the country's borders "from sea to shining sea," and stirring millions of immigrants into "the melting pot" has not yet resolved the question of how we define ourselves as one. Once upon a time, the national mythology in schoolbooks was simpler: it was easier to begin the history of this continent with Columbus and the Mayflower and mention slave ships in passing; easier to glorify Paul Revere and erase Sojourner Truth; easier to portray Native Americans as "Indian givers" and to claim Texas was a gift from God which the Mexicans tried to take away. Now that singular story is becoming ever more plural as ever more people insist on speaking for themselves; in a sense, the imperial motto is being reversed. Even Boy Scouts are coming out as queers and atheists. Therefore, cultural conservatives are sounding variations upon an old theme: "The center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world"
Indeed, the battles over public funding of "pornographic art" and over multiculturalism in education are only one part of the greater "cultural war" which Patrick Buchanan explicitly declared at the last Republican National Convention. At that time, the joke among liberals was, "It sounded better in the original German" It's false to equate Nazism with present racism, but it is worth recalling the earlier Kulturkampf against Kulturbolshevismus for the purpose of comparison. The sexual, racial, and cultural purity--or pollution--of the People is again becoming a hellish rallying cry, both at home and abroad. And yet, although partisan policies are often racist in their actual effects, and implicit appeals to racism--such as the infamous Republican Willie Horton TV ads--are easily decoded, only a fraction of the American far right dares to be explicitly racist. At present, crusaders for flag, faith, and family feel freer to demonize "secular humanists," "radical feminists," and "militant homosexuals" by those very words.
The fierce sexism and heterosexism of the religious right are concentrates of a more diffuse patriarchal populism which spans the political spectrum and can be found even among secular humanists. In the wake of the women's and gay movements, the religious right coalesced as a cultural counterrevolution, affirming distinct sex roles within family and society as a way to God. As the religious right waged a "pro-family" crusade, many liberals and leftists retreated from the field or even tried to make that crusade their own. In 1981, a so-called Family Protection Act was introduced in Congress which rallied the right in defense of heterosexual reproductive monogamy sanctioned by God and state, and against any social and economic support for other kinds of kinship. This movement maintained that one kind of family was moral, natural, traditional--and essential to social order. Queers and feminists were identified as the serpents in the Garden of Eden.
In 1984, Richard Viguerie, the right-wing direct-mail specialist, announced he would send out 50 million letters hitting upon two key issues: "Democrats' courting of the gay vote and liberals being soft on communism. " Strategists in the Democratic Party got the message--and began running a race backward. After the Democrats lost the presidency in the same year, the Village Voice published Sol Stern's "Prescription for 1988: Bury the 1960s," which advised dropping the " baggage" of feminism, "an assertive gay-culture movement," and "an opportunistic black candidate"--namely, Jesse Jackson. In more careful code, the same purgative medicine was prescribed in a New York Times op-ed piece by Peter R. Rosenblatt, "Centrism Is Crucial." On january 28, 1985, in another op-ed piece in the same paper, Alan Webber urged the Democrats to "find new principles" and advised using the theme of family "to get beneath the narrower interests of the hardhats, feminists, blacks, and other groups. After all, members of a family can disagree and still stand together behind their shared values" Once the "other groups" had been dispatched to the orphanage, however, this"family" began looking like an ever more exclusive business club.
Later in 1985, Paul Kirk, then head of the Democratic National Committee, put theory into practice by trying to leash and muzzle the black, Hispanic, women's, and gay caucuses. In 1988, Dukakis ran for president by keeping the same distance from "special-interest groups"--a phrase which liberals had once used to describe corporate interests but which the Democrats now adopted with its Republican redefinition. Though Dukakis lost, conservative centrism was now the main orthodoxy of the party. Clinton, a more charismatic candidate, gave it a fine tuning and won.
Centrism of this kind means, in fact, a restriction of democratic representation. In this way the cultural warriors in the Republican Party have also advanced corporate special interests within the Democratic Party. Does this mean all cultural conservatives are calculating cynics whose only true motives are economic? No. In fact, the equation can be turned around. Economic reductionism often carries a very high moral and cultural voltage. For example, an editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, David R. Boldt, began an op-ed piece of january 17, 1993, in this manner: "There's something ironic, and perhaps even a little ominous, about the possibility that instead of turning the economy around, Bill Clinton may spend his first 100 days dealing with Haitians, homosexuals and Saddam Hussein" Haitians and homosexuals, of course, are linked by popular association with AIDS; the further alliterative link with Hussein makes them all roughly equivalent, sinister, and expendable.
Our species does not live by work and wages alone; we live by making worlds of meaning in common. Meaning is never added on to social relations as an afterthought; rather, those social relations will embody, for better or worse, whatever meaning is possible. In this sense, many radicals, liberals, and conservatives do share some kind of communal perspective. Our differences reflect a reality in which plural worlds of meaning collide and explode, or are collapsed by the enormous force of social gravity into a totalitarian unity. And the real problem in any modern democracy is how to keep such worlds in approximate orbits. Democratic socialists hope for a better balance between autonomy and solidarity in social relations.
Twentieth-century nationalism has been most dangerous when mythology and technology have been harnessed together in mass movements. The most archaic appeals to blood and soil are much deadlier when the state has the most modern means of production, communication, transportation, and destruction at its disposal. Politicians and the mass media assure the American public that totalitarianism is fundamentally foreign; but since World War II, the corporate and technocratic class has grown greatly in power--and further beyond democratic control. President Eisenhower, hardly a radical, was concerned enough to name one sector of this class the military-industrial complex. In the closing quarter of this century, a strong theocratic movement has also emerged, and politicians of both major parties acknowledge its power every time they genuflect at the shrine of "family values."
Just as theocrats like Buchanan depend greatly upon mass communication and worldly expertise, so do technocrats like Bush depend upon religious voters. Their alliance within the Republican Party is not always friendly; both factions would like to claim all the prestige of Christ and all the power of Caesar. A smaller assortment of Republicans--including Massachusetts Governor William Weld and Barry Goldwater--have explicitly stated that "real" conservatives have no business crusading against abortion and sodomy; the business of business is business. Only the small Libertarian Party holds fast to the formula of profits and privacy with progammatic consistency; it is more rigorously laissez faire, so to speak, than the Republicans. That formula, however, is contradictory at its core because profits may be privately acquired, but they are publicly produced. And the implicit equation of economics with public life and of social issues with privacy is also untenable, if only because the rich can afford so much more publicity and privacy than other citizens.
When any small social fraction owns the vast balance of wealth and resources, democracy it, self is endangered. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote, "We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth in a few hands, but we can't have both."
"Here is the Rose. Dance Here."
The universe is not only queerer than we imagine, but
it is queerer than we can imagine. In his dissertation of 1840, when Marx still had greater respect for philosophy as such, he wrote:" Philosophy makes no secret of it. The proclamation of Prometheus: |In one word--I hate all gods' is her own profession, her own slogan against all the gods of heaven and earth who do not recognize man's self-consciousness as the highest divinity. There shall be none other beside it." Blake had put a similar thought in poetry: "God is no more:/Thine own Humanity learn to adore"
Eve deserves to join Prometheus among the patron saints of humanity, since she dared first to eat from the tree of knowledge, just as he dared to steal fire from heaven. But because Prometheus was male, because no one questions his mythological status, and because he can serve as a model of entrepreneurial spirit, therefore his golden, larger-than-life form was given pride of place at Rockefeller Center. In his American incarnation, Prometheus became a kind of sun-god. Promethean fire had passed from the arsenal of nineteenth-century rebels and romantics into the treasury of twentieth-century capitalists--from Marx and Shelley to Rockefeller and Co.
The other monumental sculpture at Rockefeller Center is Atlas holding the globe, and Ayn Rand divined his symbolic significance by naming one of her novels Atlas Shrugged--a capitalist tract, in fact, whose moral is that the world would crash without the strong shoulders of an entrepreneurial aristocracy. These are not "mere" symbols; the symbols proclaim the social system, and it matters little if "the man in the street" knows nothing of Greek mythology, Adam Smith, and Karl Marx. Those in the know will know, and the monuments remain a public spectacle of wealth and power. When Diego Rivera was commissioned to paint a mural at Rockefeller Center, he included a portrait of Lenin. Rockefeller was not amused and ordered the mural painted over. "The ruling ideas of each age," wrote Marx, "have ever been the ideas of its ruling class "
We are so used to thinking of socialism as some kind of state system that it's sometimes difficult to remember its full history and dimensions over time. Moral and political choices are never a true science, and yet we must make just such choices. Marx acknowledged as much when he quoted a Latin phrase that Hegel had also used and gave it a free translation: "|Hic Rhodus, hic salta!' Here is the rose. Dance here!" Since the struggle for democratic socialism is also the struggle for reason and imagination against what Blake called "mind, forged manacles," this challenge must extend to "scientific socialism." The entire libertarian left--radical humanists and democrats, anarchists and socialists of varied kinds and hues--has always regarded Marxism-Leninism as a disastrous hybrid, both in theory and in power; but democratic socialists feel free to make use of what's best in the work of Marx and his followers. And in that spirit, there are times when even that old blunderbuss of "vulgar Marxism," the last of the Theses on Feuerbach, is appropriate: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it "
No myth is merely a lie. Marx, among others, did much to reveal the mythological dimension of capitalist economies. But then, being something of a nineteenth-century positivist himself, he claimed for his own party an exclusive patent on progress and predicted that our species would one day create and live in a world of thoroughly egalitarian and rational social relations. What was implicit in the work of Marx became more crudely explicit in a long essay by his collaborator, Friedrich Engels, in which "scientific socialism" was defined in strict antagonism to any and all other utopian kinds. Simone Weil criticized this sectarian scientism--"the cult of production, the cult of big industry, the blind belief in progress"--precisely because of the harm done "both to the scientific and to the revolutionary spirit."
But among the best socialists, the dead letter failed to kill strong spirits. Hannah Arendt wrote a fine analysis of the famous debate among German Social Democrats in which Eduard Bernstein represented the reformers and Rosa Luxemburg the revolutionaries. Bernstein frankly broke away from the framework of Marxism, whereas Luxemburg maintained the "scientific" doctrine. But, Arendt noted, the real motive of the revolutionaries was that "they considered society as it was to be unbearable on moral grounds, on grounds of justice" Even among revolutionary comrades, Luxemburg took an independent course, always insisting on a democratic path and destination: "Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party--however numerous they may be--is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently." She criticized Lenin's centralism directly: "Nothing will more surely enslave a young labor movement to an elite hungry for power than this bureaucratic strait jacket, which will immobilize the movement and turn it into an automaton manipulated by a Central Committee"
Shortly after founding the German Communist Party, Luxemburg was murdered in 1919--as Arendt wrote, "under the eyes and probably with the connivance of the Socialist regime then in power." The murderers were members of the Freikorps, "a paramilitary organization from which Hitler's storm troopers were soon to recruit their most promising killers.... Thus Rosa Luxemburg's death became the watershed between two eras in Germany; and it became the point of no return for the German Left " While Arendt noted Luxemburg's "often doctrinaire internationalism," she acknowledged a good measure of truth even there: "What, after all, has contributed more to the catastrophic decline of Europe than the insane nationalism which accompanied the decline of the nation state in the era of imperialism?"
Sarajevo, once again, is the epicenter of a catastrophe--the alpha and omega of European horrors in this century. But did World War I really begin when Gavrilo Princip shot the Archduke Ferdinand? European socialists had forecast that war years in advance; the spark was a surprise, but the dynamite had been laid by the whole course of industrialism and colonialism. August Bebel, the great German Social Democrat, had proclaimed a Gotterdammerung: "All Europe will be called to arms " The official German Handbook for Social Democratic Voters of 1911 ventured this prediction: "The next European war will be a game of va-banque whose equal the world has never seen" At this late date in the twentieth century, we might wonder whether World War I ever truly ended--whether it has not continued in more or less subterranean and volcanic forms over most of the century, with tremors and fissures far around the world.
Our purpose is to defend the first American Revolution," a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution once said, "and to prevent a second one." But if we extend democracy in the direction Of socialism, does that amount to a second revolution? Only if organized reaction and state violence prevent social change, possibly driving citizens to open revolt.
For myself and many others, a humanism formulated in traditional terms of secularism, science, and democracy is not enough. Humanism of that kind is often very honorable but just as often bound by class illusions; nor is it clear that the old school can offer the strongest resistance to totalitarianism. Rather than resting upon antique laurels, humanists should share in struggles which are properly communal and cultural. Eighteenth-century rationalism is not good enough if we simply dismiss the mythological dimension of culture; nineteenth, century positivism is not good enough when we fail to view science as a social venture with its own abuses and distortions; and even late-twentieth-century "postmodernism" is not good enough when it allows us to storm barricades in the stratosphere of theory without making a damn bit of difference on the ground. Postmodern theory can be of use in its consistent stress on cultural pluralism.
"The purpose of Nature," wrote Spinoza, "is to make all men uniform, as children of a common mother" As a free, thinking Jew living and writing in the relative shelter of the Dutch republic, Spinoza had good reason to value tolerance, and his particular variant of natural philosophy was a real advance beyond feudalism and fanaticism. Jane Jacobs quotes his dictum in her book The Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle Over Sovereignty, and she points out that his view became the common sense of the later Enlightenment: "People always seem to want to believe they are in harmony with the world as it is ordered by nature or the gods to be. Perhaps such a belief is necessary to human morale.... Universality and uniformity, as ideals, subtly influenced how people thought about education, politics, economics, government, everything "
But, as she goes on to say,"Naturalists went on studying nature and its ways." She believes "what they found in nature was a force forever hostile to uniformity, a force that insisted upon diversity." Whether modern science is so uniformly opposed to uniformity is really a much more complex topic than she allows, but it is undeniably true that there is a strong cur, rent of thought stressing natural diversity and variation. A more truly plural conception of nature--if it became integrated into our common culture--might well raise human morale above any narrow moralism. "An American paleontologist," she writes, "can now remark in passing, with every expectation of being understood by a general readership, that |new species almost always arise in tiny populations separated from larger parental groups.'"
Spinoza himself is a good example of that kind of evolution. Among a people who had fled the Inquisition, he found himself excommunicated from the Sephardic synagogue in Amsterdam. There is usually a presumption of heterosexuality in the absence of evidence about a persons desires or actions--which presumptuous. There are queers of all kinds, whether or not Spinoza was gay. But I do wonder whether a deep sense of social singularity and exile did not first move him to find a way back to the larger natural order by way of private thought. At the end of the nineteenth century, the English gay socialist, Edward Carpenter, sounded a variation on a similar theme of homecoming--and used the same maternal refrain as Spinoza --when he imagined a "new communal life near to nature, so far from any asceticism or inhospitality," with "far more humanity and sociability than ever before: an infinite helpfulness and sympathy, as between the children of a common mother."
Nature and kinship have often been called upon precisely to submerge reason and volition, to silence women, children, and queers, to "prove" that all resistance to a given social order is unnatural. But such themes remain open to variations.
E Pluribus Unum?
Any traditional programmatic list of demands and strategies is not appropriate in an essay whose purpose is more generally critical and, yes, utopian. The practical and tactical substance of present and future movements and struggles is best discovered by going direct to the sources. In the United States, the two-party system is certainly a relic which must be challenged through local and growing electoral alternatives. Real Choice/New Voices, a new book by Douglas J. Amy, makes the case for proportional-representation elections in the United States. Ring a bell? Remember the furor over the ideas of Lani Guinier? In France, women are seeking reform and parity in representation in the lower house of parliament. And in the Czech republic, President Havel recently said: "The Gypsy problem is a litmus test not of democracy but of a civil society. The two are certainly two sides of the same coin; one is unthinkable without the other. One means legislation to enable people to vote and make them the source of power. The civil society is related to human behavior"
Rosa Luxemburg pointed out in the last piece she wrote before her death that certain socialist "successes" had been Pyrrhic victories, whereas there was much to be learned and gained from "those historical defeats which constitute the pride and power of international socialism." There is not a single word or ideal that has not been dragged through the mud and blood of this century--including democracy and humanism. Shall we invent a new language altogether to be able to go on with life and still pass on our stories? Is the burden and shame of the old words too great this late in the twentieth century? Broken, hearted silence and withdrawal have a certain minimum of integrity. But the century approaching will bring us still greater shame and burdens if we leave politics only to politicians, and if we abandon the great majority of our own species to another era of wars and hunger. We can choose to fight the good fight. 4
Scott Tucker is an artist, activist, and writer, as well as a founding member of the Philadelphia chapter of ACT UP. His column "Our Queer World" appears regularly in The Humanist. A longer version of this essay will be included in Our Right to the World, to be published by South End Press.
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|Date:||Mar 1, 1994|
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