Farewells To American Culture, Work And Competition


Farewells To American Culture, Work And Competition

Lester Thurow, Head To Head, Warner Books: (N.Y., 1992.)

Robert B. Reich, The Work Of Nations, Vintage: (N.Y., 1992.)

John Kenneth Galbraith, The Culture Of Contentment, Houghton Mifflin. (Boston, 1992.)

Three men in a sinking boat, having traveled far and wide, even to the ‘Orient’, provide a triptych of the ‘recline’ of the American empire. A combination of a call to arms coupled with a nostalgic farewell to arms where the trusted and true signifiers ‘culture’, ‘work’ and ‘competition’ stage a last fading appearance against the red shift of the technoscape. It is a little like Hopper’s main street America after the throughway has by passed the town leaving the old men on the porch wistfully discussing the glories of last season. Virtual nostalgia for the virtuous.

In each writer the recuperative moment varies according to the remnants of the modern tradition that are used as the saving grace. With Thurow it is the exhortation to become Nietzsche’s ‘Good Europeans’, or Americans or Japanese if you prefer, with Reich it is the fear of abandonment by the Kantian ‘Cosmopolitan Universal Symbolic Analyst’, or with Galbraith it is the sated ‘Hobbesian man’ who has found ‘commodious living’ and has no desire to go forward to the glorious revolution.

All this played out against a screen that each writer agrees to: first that, in Galbraith’s words, the vast majority of America is constituted by a ‘Functional Underclass’ that is becoming less functional; second that American dominance is only assured in the military; and third that the dynamo of all relations is that of the technological operator that successfully challenges the existing social and economic order of worker, corporation and nation. Hence the threat of disappearance of America and the recuperative strategies to sustain an American world order which is fast following its alter image, Reagan’s ‘evil empire’, into a virtual fantasy land.

Thurow comes right out of the pages of Nietzsche’s On The Genealogy Of Morals as the vivisectionist whose (pre)description for the future concerns the creation of the ‘beast’ (perhaps no longer blond) of the ‘Good European’. As if to underscore the necessity of this sociobiology engineering, Thurow begins the reprint of the paper edition with the following written in 1993.

“In the long run, Europe will be successful, however, if everyone comes to realize that becoming a European is not equivalent to becoming a German or a Frenchman. To be German, one must cease to be English. But no European now exists. It is a beast that has yet to be genetically engineered. When engineered, it will not require an either/or choice. One will be able to be an Englishman and a European. European is not a nationality. Everyone in Europe will also contribute some important genetic material that will be used to create this new beast.” (p. x)

Naturally this genetic engineering will, in Thurow’s opinion, require a concomitant reengineering of values in line with the technological requirements of the creation of the competitive block. For the middle and eastern Europeans “Basic attitudes about fairness will have to change” (p. 97) acknowledging the projected growth in inequalities and the unstated creation of an underclass governed by technological demands. Thurow also signals the demise of the will in the willing not to will of the technological spectral ‘competition’; a competition that is itself more virtual (technological) than real.

Hence, the Japanese, as befitting Thurow’s revitalized social Darwinism, have gone beyond good and evil, in that their “secret is to be found in the fact that they have tapped a universal human desire to build, to belong to an empire, to conquer neighboring empires, and to become the world’s leading economic power.” (p.118) Thurow then goes on providing his list of ‘world historical figures’, not the consumers but the “the conquerors, the builders, the producers — Caesar, Genghis Khan, Rockefeller, Ford.” (p.119) It is on this basis that Thurow’s argument carries him naturally from the underclass to the necessity of the ruling class drawn on Nietzsche’s ‘overmen’: “What America lacks is genuine, old-style capitalists — those big investors of yesteryear who often invented the technologies they were managing and whose personal wealth was inextricably linked to the destiny of their giant companies. It misses them. Men like Henry Ford; Thomas J. Watson, of IBM; and J.P. Morgan were at the heart of the system that produced the greatest economic power and the highest standard of living in history.” Thus following Thurow where is Genghis Khan when you need him, or for that matter Clinton?

Of course, Thurow’s Nietzschean turn is more reflective of the ressentiment that accompanies the realization that the American individual and the American economy are “floating” in a world economy where the appropriation of process technologies, notably by the Japanese, has replaced the romantic, world historical inventor of new products at the core of economic change. The processed world floats in the technological space that creates the screen for the virtual space of ‘competition’ Thurow circulates in his call for recombinant new beasts — new beasts which will have high technology body parts at a minimum.

Robert Reich’s recoding of Smith’s Wealth Of Nations has at least the virtue to follow through more consistently on the logic of the technological class that is at the core of transforming each of the institutional structures of the postcapitalist economic state. Here one enters most explicitly into the inner logic of extermination of the local bounded space by the hyperspace of technique. This gives rise to the technological universal citizen that Reich approaches as the schizoid embodiment of alterity; a disappearing corporeal existence (work or labour) set into circulation in the ‘floating world’ of symbolic manipulators. Thus Reich’s America and America’s ‘work’ force, whether explicitly recognized or not, are disappearing and he is out to save it.

Hence the paradox of Reich’s retrieval set against the core of Reich’s analysis which is the (pre)description of the trend towards the disappearance of what he calls the ‘national idea’.

“There will be no national products or technologies, no national corporations, no national industries. There will be no longer be national economies, at least as we have come to understand that concept. ” (p.3)

What is left are transnational global knowledge webs (that is no longer property based corporations per se) and large holding areas of labour identified with nation states or trading areas. These labour encampments contain in turn ‘workers’ in three classes: “routine production services, in person services, and symbolic-analytic services.” (p.174) Of these categories the first is completely fungible (clonal) with any other labour source and hence is consigned to permanent ‘poverty’, the second being more site specific is marginally better off but going nowhere (homeostasis), leaving only the third as the skilled technical class created by the rich but whose future Reich sees in terms of the universal, transnational economy.

It is the class of symbolic-analysts who, representing according to Reich about 20% of the work force, are in the process of seceding from the nation (p. 282) — an ironic reversal of the civil war. These are the destroyers of the “economic interdependence that Tocqueville observed in the nineteenth century” (p.250) becoming instead the ‘cosmopolitan man or woman’. Precisely then as Kantian citizens in the postmodern age they pass over to the ‘darker side’:

“Here we find the darker side of cosmopolitanism. For without strong attachments and loyalties extending beyond the family and friends, symbolic analysts may never develop the habits and attitudes of social responsibility. They will be world citizens, but without accepting or even acknowledging any obligation that citizenship in a polity normally implies. ” (p.309)

Having made the case for the disappearance of Tocqueville, and Tocqueville’s America Reich then magically brings him back. “What is being lost in this debate is a third, superior position: a positive economic nationalism, in which each nation’s citizens take responsibility for enhancing the capacities of their countrymen for full and productive lives, but who also work with other nations to ensure that these improvements do not come at other’s expense. ” ( p. 311) Here one has come full circle back to the world of Kantian bucolic universal peace with a concomitant belief that technology may hold the promise of morality as well as progress. Here, however, the peaceable kingdom is the simulated realm of virtual systems that operate beyond the nexus of worker/capitalist.

Nonetheless, there is more than a little irony in Reich’s role as Secretary of Labor. Reich is, in essence, the chief shop steward of a the Union of Disappearing American Workers; now orchestrating the sacrifice/dispersion of America for the world. Reich pressed after a recent budgetary strategy commented that the federal budget initiatives have in the end mainly only psychological impact. A conjurers budget perfectly suited to the chameleon nature of the Clinton program.

With Galbraith we reach the height of America in recline where culture following that of work, competition and the individual passes into the world of early retirement. Galbraith’s ‘Hobbesian man’ has tired of the self interested pursuit of power after power. Having achieved the fruits of power and authority the pursuit of happiness is now successfully realized, at least for the ‘fortunate’, in contentment. Galbraith is then the first complete liberal playing out the final logic of the classical political economy of desire where desire finds its end in contentment.

“The larger point is not in doubt: the fortunate and the favored, it is more than evident, do not contemplate and respond to their own longer-run well-being. Rather they respond, and powerfully, to immediate comfort and contentment. This is the controlling mood. And this is so not only in the capitalist world as it is stilled called; a deeper and more general human instinct is here involved. ” (p. 7)

But Galbraith discovers a more than just a dubious basic instinct in contentment for it is as well a ‘controlling mood’. This postmodern mood Galbraith sees appearing in the devaluation of politics, the creation of the functional underclass, the continued maintenance of property or bailouts like the savings and loans scandal; the disappearance of the signifiers of modern America all now as controlling factors that undermine democracy.

“{The power of contentment} operates under the compelling cover of democracy, albeit a democracy not of all the citizens but of those who, in defense of their social and economic advantage, actually go to the polls. The result is government that is accommodated not to reality or common need but to the beliefs of the contented, who are now the majority of those who vote.” (p. 10)

But as we know from Hobbes, desire’s twin is fear; together desire/fear create the alternating currents of Galbraith’s liberal America. With the satisfaction of desire (contentment) comes the growth of the military and the private security industry. The controlling mood is one of violence and force. As both Galbraith and Reich note private security has the highest rate of increase in the ‘service’ sector. America then as a screen for the play of the military role that remains America’s ‘comparative advantage’. Again Galbraith on democracy which serves as “the rood screen, perhaps more precisely the altar, behind which the modern military-industrial complex enjoys its self-generated and self serving autonomy.” (p.138) Here there is no redemption for Galbraith for he has taken liberalism to the moment of its exhaustion leaving only violence and fear — except for the wistful nostalgia of those who see their own culture of contentment bleeding in front of them.

The recuperative moments of Reich, Thurow and Galbraith all wish to save America by recoding with modern signifiers whose eclipse they have documented. In America there are no longer, if there ever was, ‘Good Americans’, or ‘Tocquevillean citizens’, or the ‘fortunate’ who are going to look to the future. America is in the process of disappearing, dispersed across the world in a continuing sacrificial spiral. America now reengineering itself via a technological processes that creates the culture, work, competition and self that is no longer ‘made in America’ or made anywhere other than in technological space and whose future may well be played out in the only realm that America still holds the edge — violence both inside and outside the nation.

David Cook is co-author of The Postmodern Scene and Panic Encyclopedia. He teaches political philosophy at Scarborough College, University of Toronto. Toronto, Ontario, Canada.