Seizing the American Identity
Originally posted atOccupy Oakland Media
Last week I wrote about the continued relevance of the nation state. This week's piece is on seizing the American identity.
As leftists, we should seize the American identity from the moribund hands of dying bigots and refashion it into something that centers on economic well being for the majority of Americans. Ultimately a nation state depends on its citizens embracing a common orientation, or a common identity if you will.
Some might claim that such an identity must be exclusive and all encompassing, but this is not actually how people live their lives. One thing that we have learned through social/cultural studies is not only that identity is flexible, but that people embrace various identities at different times. Ethnicity, religion, gender are the obvious identities, but the others are no less significant. All you have to do is walk into a sports bar during a championship game and you'll see how many people identify with their favorite team, and how this bonds them together. And if you ever want to see how much people identify with a consumer product, just look at the entire car culture, where advertising is predicated on convincing people that purchasing a certain car, handbag or phone defines who they are as a person.
Some people believe that America can only be a "white" nation, and that everyone else is relegated to a subordinate role. We know that is incorrect, and those of us living in Oakland specifically and the Bay Area generally can see every day how people of many ethnicities can live and work side by side. You often hear immigrants say that to them the American dream is to build a life that is better for their children, and to have the opportunity to exercise their talents and ability to the maximum extent possible.
I argue that this is in fact the common American identity-- the idea that tomorrow will be better than today, and that future generations will have more prosperous lives than today. By focusing on the material conditions of peoples' lives, we create a common identity that people can participate in, and one that we can all experience in the same ways. There is much validity in the concept that people of various ethnicities, religions and sexualities experience life differently. These things are very important. At the same time, if we are to survive as a nation state, we must have a common identity that everyone can relate to, and it is my argument that a material/economic identity is the most likely candidate.
There is an argument that the belief in increasing prosperity is at the heart of the vapid consumer culture that promoted giant, gas-guzzling SUVs, resource depleting McMansions and air-conditioned ice skating in the desert.
But really, how prosperous is that really? How wonderful is it to have to borrow 100% of a home purchase price, only to see the value fall, and be locked into a loan in a dreary exurb with no jobs, and facing a 2 hour roundtrip commute through gridlock? It isn't. There is nothing good about that at all. I don't know a single person who enjoys commuting for hours by car, yet we've allowed our country to be built around this wasteful insanity. How can we ever have said that the United States was prosperous throughout the 80s and 90s as median wages stagnated, and inner city residents were treated to endless job training programs, but no jobs, while a few people got rich on the back of workers in and from less developed countries? How can we call ourselves prosperous when we're destroying the environment that supports human life?
In fact, what we've had for 30 years is an illusion, the candy coated propaganda of prosperity that slowly burdened Americans with more and more private debt, for school, healthcare and housing.
Turning our situation around first requires us to understand the fundamental underpinnings of economics. This sounds a lot more complicated than it is, mostly because the prevailing economic orthodoxy has a vested interested in keeping all of us ignorant about how the monetary system actually works. What we want is a monetary system that serves the common good. What we have instead is a monetary system that enriches the financial elite at the expense of everyone else.
The number one thing that everyone must understand is that the federal government cannot go bankrupt, and that the limits of spending are hard material constraints. That's it. Modern money is not backed by gold or debt. Rather, dollars have value because they are collected by the federal government as taxes. For those of you who play online games, it is not altogether different from the reason that online game currency has value-- because if you want to play the game you have to use the in game currency to "level up" within the game.
The United States is functionally no different-- if you want to play in the US you have to pay taxes in dollars. Incidentally, this is also a good reason for people to remember that national level action is still important-- because the state governments ARE constrained by taxes, since unlike the federal government, states cannot simply issue more currency. A group of economists centered around the University of Missouri, Kansas City has done a lot of work on this issue-- you can see more on their blog, http://neweconomicperspectives.org
Once you understand this, then what you will se a few things.
You will see that it is a policy choice that keeps millions of Americans who want jobs, out of a job, and in circumstances that lead to mass incarceration for millions of African Americans.
You will see that it is a policy choice that keeps the United States from developing credible public transit alternatives to driving, despite countless examples overseas.
You will see that it is a policy choice that keeps higher education unaffordable without recourse to expensive student loans that enrich the financial elite while hurting young people.
You will see that it is a policy choice that forces a young mother to choose between paying for food and paying for medical treatment for her cancer.
You will see that it is a policy choice to let the critical water and power infrastructure in America decay so that it can be privatized so a few people can make money.
And if you're like me, you will be very, very angry , because we are being lied to when people tell us there is no money.
There is also a special sector of hell reserved for the well meaning liberals who read Paul Krugman columns and though they cluck on about the gutting of America, they propose only the most milquetoast reforms, while still accepting the underlying, and wrong, argument "that we have no money." That's not an opposition. That's people who feel bad about losing and are going to be satisfied if the elite throws a few bones.
A real opposition demands that we build a future that is better than today, and can clearly articulate an end state goal and how to get there. Some people may say that what I'm describing is unrealistic. I profoundly disagree. It is pretty obvious that if enough people march in the streets and refuse to comply with the dictates of the system, that there will be a narrow window in which anything is possible. But knowing what we want isn't enough, because getting it will require figuring out how to get there. At Occupy, discussions of tactics are always popular-- voting is widely considered to be a waste of time, and the discussion falls into what kinds of direct action are preferable-- violent or nonviolent. Often the tactical discussions eclipse the discussions of what we want, and this piece has been designed in part to answer that question.
However, the tactical discussion itself has a component that has been little discussed at Occupy-- the human relationships that are necessary to any critical political activity. Simply crying out "solidarity" does little to address the sickness at the heart of the consumer culture in America.
Next week's article will address the kind of relationships that we must develop. Coming next week-- The True Colors of a Citizen.