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Seizing the American Identity

wuming's picture

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,

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.

Fuck that.

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.

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malagodi's picture
Submitted by malagodi on

Well this post was so outrageous, so arrogant, so ill-thought out that I decided I better read the first installment before I replied to what a load of stalinist crap it is.

So upon reading your initial article, the importance of the Nation State, I see that you've never read Hobbs, with whom you have an obvious affinity, you've probably never heard of Rudolph Rocker and you really know nothing about the origins of the nation-state, its development, and the various movements, both secular and spiritual that seek a humane alternative. Your experience is what you think you learned from Oakland Occupy.

Perhaps before issuing such audacities like "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" you might want to get a bit more knowledge and experience with what you're trying to talk about. Moribund hands of dying bigots. Really.

So I will temper my contempt for your arrogance and ignorance due to your obvious limited framework of reference.

But I really can't wait for the next installment for you to tell us about the true colors of a citizen.

wuming's picture
Submitted by wuming on

Because clearly, mommy and daddy bought you a copy of Roget's Thesaurus back in 19XX and then your 6th grade English teacher told you that using lots of adjectives made for strong writing.

But that's not really going to cut it with me.

Stalinism? Really? Exactly where did I say I wanted to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat under the guidance of one party rule? Wait. I didn't. So now we've established that you just reached into your thesaurus and grabbed the first derogatory political adjective that you could find, irrespective of whether it was in any way descriptive of my political beliefs.

Let's take a look at your other "arguments," shall we? Or perhaps I should say, the other ingredients in the incoherent word salad you call an argument.

Next you go off on the fact that since I've never read Hobbes, or Rudolph Rocker, I must be ignorant. You appear not to have considered the fact that perhaps I am read in other political and philosophical traditions than the Western. You aren't the first person to make that mistake; I've had plenty of people at Occupy assume that since I am not familiar with the minutia of the Russian Revolution I must be some evil liberal who doesn't understand the true meaning of revolution. What that makes you, and them, is fucking ignorant.

My interest has been for many years on examining the political and intellectual history of popular uprising and state/cultural failure in Asia. Part of the reason I started this series is because it is a history that is widely unknown in American radical political circles, except in the most derogatory exoticized fashion. All I am really doing is taking those insights and applying them in the American arena. I have to thank you for your little temper tantrum, because you provide a perfect example of someone who is so caught up in his bullshit that he can't recognize a perspective outside the trite narrative that dominates oppositional left politics in the United States.

Ironically the person with the limited frame of reference here, is you.

Is it arrogant for me to criticize the existing leftist paradigm? No. Because your generation for 30 years has played out the same tired narratives, and expected my generation to fall in line with your failed initiatives. Because you have failed. Saying "Moribund hands of dying bigots-- really" in no way refutes what I said. All you are doing is trying to substitute the contempt of an old man for any reasoned argument. I'll say the same to the people who lionize European protest movements-- in 20 years of trying, your idols too are still getting nowhere, while hard-right governments continue to consolidate their power and destroy the economic livelihoods of decent people everywhere.

So please excuse me if I'm not going to genuflect to anyone. I have respect for my elders and I will listen to what people have to say. I'll respect what people who came before me have done. At the same time I, and those around me, are not bound by it. And we demand that you respect us. We are goddamn sick of people still pushing their outdated paradigms on the rest of us, bullshit that hasn't in any meaningful way stopped the neo-liberal onslaught.

I'm know that one day the frameworks and ideas that we employ will be considered painfully out of date. And I hope when that day comes, I, and my generation will be able to gracefully step aside in recognition that our time has come.

But until then, understand that we won't be compromising with failure.

Submitted by lambert on

... because I like, er, 99% of what you have to say, and I'm especially looking forward to an Asian-inflected perspective, but I do think generational analysis ("your generation") is an awfully blunt analytical tool. Consider, for example, who provides this platform...

Second, I think that "your generation has not yet succeeded" would be a far more effective frame than "your generation has failed."

Third, I go back, you know, and I look for the inflection point where outcomes would have been different. Can you see such a point? if success was not to be had, then we need not reproach ourselves for failure. Then again, it may be that the inflection point is now, in which case ageism is especially inappropriate strategically.

Fourth, I agree 10,000% that the paradigms/tactics used by the left over the last thirty years need to ruthlessly questioned and what does not work discarded. And further that the left hasn't been especially wiling or able to do that. It's not all fail, however!

wuming's picture
Submitted by wuming on

That " "your generation has not yet succeeded" is much more accurate. And I apologize for painting with too broad a brush, especially considering who is providing this platform.

To me the inflection point of failure was probably around the early 70s. Jasper has done some pretty good work digging around the history of SDS and the push for "nonhierarchal" leadership. To me that was the moment things failed, when the movement got so out of touch with the majority of Americans that it was easily marginalized. People I know who were there have told me that heavy drug use contributed to the crazytown atmosphere, and I can believe that. Sure, drugs are fun but oppositional politics requires a clear head, and from the sound of it that kind of got overlooked.

Submitted by lambert on

Actually, it was great that you said that, because I never would have come up with the "...not yet succeeded" formulation, which I think deserves wide propagation ;-)

I think you're right about the inflection point, and there's a lot of secret history around that time; that's when real wages flattened, for example. There are a ton of other curves that change then too. Watergate, all of that, was froth. What seemed to happen, in retrospect was a forty-year-long slow moving coup, "The Neo-Liberal Ascendancy."

I don't know what would have been done to prevent it. It would have taken unity between the students and the working class, and I just don't see how that happens. SDS and AFL-CIO to blame in equal measure, I suppose, but really too many people were doing too well. Which is no longer true. Forty years of plunder have taken down a great swatch of the Boomers, and the situation doesn't get any less horrifying for any other demographic. Another way of saying this is that I really do think we are at or in a new inflection point where this time we might actually get it right....

Just for my own edification let me list some major accomplishments of "the left" loosely conceived from the mid-70s on:

1. Gay liberation and gay marriage. Wow, gays fullly human. Who knew? (And it's strange nobody's seeking to learn from ACT-UP who had great success)

2. Feminism kinda sorta. Patriarchy didn't end and the threat of reaction is ever present (see 2008 primaries) but it really is rather an achievement that you can have a woman make a serious run for President. Of course, that's a very middle class perspective.

3. The current structure of the armed forces. There's no more conscription. There are plenty of downside to that, since "all walks of life" don't participate in the Army, but nevertheless the fundamental constraints on the use of military force were set by the left. (That's why the end of the "Vietnam syndrome" is a DC talking point!)

4. Sustainable agriculture and organic farming.

5. The technical foundations of the Interent and ubiquitous computing generally.

* * *

I think The Neo-Liberal Ascendancy is now in decay, and will increasingly come to rely on naked force. But they're not really any good at that. At least in military terms, they've already lost two wars. In fact, the Bush/Obama regime managed to break the Army, and I don't think the volunteer Army would be big enough to hold the continent, even if they hadn't (see point 3 above). So if you manage to spread Occupy into the "fly over states," and why not, you win, basically. [Though to be seen to win, you need a new media [bloggers and streamers raise hands.] And in the face of a non-violent movement from "all walks of life" that's not going to work because more and more people have less and less to lose. I don't think anarchy is in the cards (for reasons you point out in your post on the state) but that's not to say that the state can't be way more humane (ending the empire would be a good start), a lot flatter (subsidiarity) and a lot more functional (single payer, jobs guarantee, debt jubilee) powered by an MMT. All of which can be prefigured with Occupy because of the amazing skill sets it can draw upon.

I guess what I'm saying is that Occupy can figure out how to get to a space where it "has to take yes for an answer." I think VAs think the answer is No. But I'm way more optimistic.

Submitted by Lex on

While it's true that the dollar is a fiat currency, both this and MMT seem to miss an important point that it is tightly bound to a tangible product ... and unlike gold, it's bound to a commodity vital to the functioning of the modern world.

The Bretton Woods arrangement that denominated all oil transactions in US dollars is what made the era of stagnating wages and increasing living standards possible. The US, and hence its citizens, could borrow money cheaply because everyone else in the world required US dollars to get on with the most fundamental matters of business.

Yes, speculation has driven up the price of crude, but its rise and the subsequent crimp that puts on the real economy is also related to the US government creating a bunch of money to bail out banks. Oil producers are going to get the real worth out of their product whether that requires $90/bbl or $140. The US is not a magical entity that can create money out of thin air with no negative implications. At some point (maybe soon), those producers will break from the Bretton Woods agreement and at that point, we're fucked.

No, this is not a right-wing "balance the budget" and "bring back the gold standard" screed. It's a realistic view of the world we inhabit, where good economics for the majority will only be possible with a fundamental restructuring of your beloved nation state. "Borrowing" a trillion dollars per year for foreign adventurism in pursuit of power and pride for the nation state has real, negative influence on a greater scale than borrowing for an exurb mcmansion.

Other than your love for the nation state, which i'd need more information to determine the depth of my disagreement, you're probably on the right track: good old fashioned American liberals are calling you a Stalinist. Having the pigs run the farm didn't turn out any better than having men run it.

wuming's picture
Submitted by wuming on

I am not sure we're actually disagreeing here. It's pretty standard in MMT to view the real constraints as resource constraints, of which oil is one. I never said that there are no constraints and that we can "create money out of thin air" with no constraints.

As far as Bretton Woods, that ended when the US went off the gold standard to my understanding. Whether oil is denominated in dollars or not, the US is still an economy with enormous idle capacity-- and we're not using that capacity. That's my point. We can use that capacity to transition off of oil, or not. But we're not even trying at this point, which I find totally unacceptable.

I'll address the "stalinist" point momentarily.

Submitted by jawbone on

Yesterday some NYC subway entrances were chained open, tape placed over the card swipe, and notes indicated rides were free. Occupy Wall Street apparently claimed responsibility for this, but the earliest local reports mentioned Occupy as probably behind the actions even before the reporting about the Occupy claim on the internet.

I think that every subway rider interviewed on the local evening news was oposed to these actions, may have been one person who said they could use a free ride. They were quoted as saying the subway system needs its revenues, they felt guilty about not paying, they said Occupy was made up of arrogant young people, but they were responsble adults, and so forth. Most interviewed were minorities.

One black woman stated she had been on unemployment but still paid her rent, her daughter's college expenses, food costs, and her transportation costs. (Hhhmmm pretty impressive...)

The MCM (Mainstrean Corporate Media) aapproach, local version, was that Occupy is not in touch with regular New Yorkers, regular working people. Elitists, get it?

That's partly what the increased police presence, with pushing away any journalists from the the police action, is all about. Have to make the Occupy people into The Others. Have to make it clear the regular citizens do not get involved in such things. Hate time for lefties.

Submitted by lambert on

One thing I know is that there was a line item in the occupy budget for mta passes -- the subway is as important to ows as, say, the railroads were to the union side in the civil war.

it would make little sense for them to mess with it; sounds like agent provocateurs to me.

UPDATE I'm wrong. Looks like it's something from a combination of Occupy and the MTA Unions. Could be stupid, could be really smart. I guess I wouldn't mind having the MTA Unions on my side; see comments above on the importance of the subway.