The Clare Spark Blog

March 8, 2014

“America is in decline”: cui bono?

decadencemeaninglessnessFirst read these:, and

Would be rescuing heroes love the idea that an “America in decline” desperately requires their services to lift “America” out of the Slough of Despond.* These malefactors could be politicians or pundits. Each has its intertwined sets of villains: creeping fascism, laws legalizing marijuana, gay rights (especially flamboyant parades and gay marriage), uppity feminists, the “do-nothing” Republican establishment, hip-hop culture that destroys the black family, modern technology that harnesses us to “the machine”, noisy atheists and other “haters” out to get “Christianity”– hence the heart and soul of American [Christian?] identity.

The most interesting item in this turn toward pessimism and fear of “weakness” is the widespread premise that America was once a “superpower.” The same persons may tell us to read Jean-François Revel, who complained that America did not fight the Cold War hard enough. See (Would the US ever had been a superpower had not Europe destroyed itself in the follies of two world wars? Is our power to be defined in military might or in industrial capacity, respect for entrepreneurship and the work ethic, science/technology, encouragement of intellectual and cultural diversity (the marketplace of ideas), and natural resources?)


As far as I can tell, “power” is a contested term, so argued over and vague that it is almost useless in ordinary conversation. What is it, who has it, who wants it, and how do we measure it? Unlike the powerful followers of Michel Foucault and the postmodernists for whom all texts are ambiguous, I go with the Frances Bacon definition “knowledge is power.” Bacon was an empiricist and a father to the scientific revolution and thus the confidence-builder for ordinary people wanting to improve their mastery of the self, the world and its institutions. (Nothing that I have written here should indicate that I approve of Obama’s and Kerry’s weakness in the face of real threats from communist nations, Islamic jihadists, or antisemites. National security is crucial, while personal emotional identification with an aggressive dictatorship is despicable.)

It is my view, constantly reiterated on this website, that European aristocrats and their social democratic offspring (see have indulged in psychological warfare to bind “the lower orders” to views that undermine knowledge and the habits that spur competence. These aristocratic radicals have created the pseudo-progressive movement with its dire view of the paranoid people (see, popular unteachability, and indecipherable documents from the past. Meanwhile “experts” have offered “compassion” and the informed “heart”) i.e., self-control and social control as the best methods to govern the unruly masses. Similarly, they have demoralized ordinary people with proclamations of decadence and decline, apocalyptic fantasies, escapism and pervasive death imagery (horror movies and “Romantic necrophilia” for instance).


The same miscreants deceptively align themselves with “science” but fail to define their terms; they support unlimited government (and all institutional) secrecy, so that ordinary people are deprived of the facts and skills that enable them to test their “betters.” In my playbook, all political factions are scaredy cats. Why do “conservatives” lobby for local control, while failing to address the curriculum that could enable their children to test all authority, including their own? Why do “progressives” deflect the curiosity of their children into channels that do not threaten the authority of their own world view?

Why will health care professionals, parents, and all teachers not agree that the search for truth is superior to “adjustment” to a misery-making and unhealthy status quo? With all the chatter around socialized medicine or the ACA, why are not the questions I have posed more widely publicized and addressed?

* I do not mean to imply that there are no problems in American society. I reject the notion that a cultural entity called “America” is “in [irreversible] decline.” Compare to Richard Epstein’s concrete specifying of problems that he would correct with a classical liberal constitutionalist approach to what are now “progressive” “solutions.” From the “Conclusion” to The Classical Liberal Constitution (Harvard UP, 2014, p. 569): “The motivation for [my] argument should be apparent from the major disarray that infects every area of modern American life: steady decline in the average standard of living; constant battles over debt limits and fiscal cliffs; uncertainty over key elements of the tax structure; massive overregulation of the most productive sources in society (health care and financial services); government-inspired brinksmanship in labor negotiations; and runaway redistribution programs that undercut the economic production that makes these programs viable.” (See

Professor Epstein has responded by email to my blog as follows: “You raise some hard and fair issues. There is no doubt that most people in this country work hard, have decent values, do actions that help advance their welfare and that of those around them.  It is indeed the politics that draws the situation down.  But there is little doubt that these policies from above have had their long lasting effect.  It is not that the situation is irreversible .  It is that we need to find the collective will to reverse it, which depends on taking specific measures of the sort that I talked about in the book.  It is sad that most constitutional theorists either ignore how the system runs and leave it all to Congress, or are so concerned with issues at the periphery that they pay no attention to the organization of basic systems from production to education and so on. Just think of the new NYC mayor Bill who will wreck education if he can and whose vision of the real estate market will not produce 1 percent of the new affordable units that he wants and that the city needs (but which can only come by liberalization, not by further edicts.”


December 16, 2009

Perceptions of the enemy: The “Left” looks at the “Right” and vice-versa

 [Added 1-10-11: This blog is about rhetoric on both sides of the great divide over statism and the New Deal. But it is not my view that the incident in Tucson is about hate speech at all, but about the failure to prevent such atrocities owing to a malfunctioning mental health-law enforcement establishment.] [Added 3-5-11: I am wondering if some Republicans are reacting to Democratic Party accusations that they are grinding the face of the poor and of the hard-working “middle class” by excessive politeness and silence, for instance in not fully explaining state initiatives in Wisconsin and Ohio that would rein in public sector unions, letting the opposition control public opinion.]

Cindy Sherman, Untitled, 1990

Some mistaken identities.

I don’t think that some “Right-wing” partisans understand Leftists, often conflating revolutionary socialists, anarchists, and [anticommunist] social democrats. And yet media pundits constantly refer to “the Left” as if it still existed in its historic 19th and 20th century red-hot formulations and in the same numbers. What is lost is the memory of moderate conservatives or conservative reformers like FDR (descendants of New Dealers, now called “the Left”) and their practices of lopping off those who were to their left, that is, the structural reformers, unless there was a “Popular Front” against looming internal and external fascism, as did exist from 1935 until the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939.  At what point did these “moderate conservatives” as they called themselves  metamorphose into “the Left” as sole defenders of the little guy? I am guessing around 1919 (but following antimodern protest such as Victor Hugo’s melodramatic Les Misérables in the late 19th century). More on that another time, or see chapter two of my book on the Melville revival or my blog on Disraeli’s contribution to social democracy (

From long experience with leftists and the entire socialist-communist-social democratic traditions, however, despite their sharp differences in goals and tactics, I can generalize about them as follows:  All factions of “the Left” believe themselves to be the true bearers of morality and that conservatives are heartless fascist* murderers. By contrast, as progressives they see themselves as sacrificing their own personalities, economic interests, and happiness for “the public good” or “suffering humanity”; to be one of them, you must “stand with the oppressed,” even if that means helping Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. In other words, they seek to uplift those whom “the Right” (e.g. Israel) knowingly and viciously victimizes. And many prominent “liberals” may accomplish this grand goal “by any means necessary (e.g. hear the cry of 1960s black nationalists or see Trey Ellis in HuffPo, 12-16: “The Obama administration needs to course-correct immediately. He needs to make a series of bold, muscular, ruthlessly political moves immediately (reconciliation anyone?) to put the fear of god into all those puny adversaries out there that have been pushing him around with impunity”).  So they are the true humanitarians in their own eyes and the antitheses of the “fascists” they valiantly oppose.

Also, do not minimize both continuities and ruptures between the factions of what is loosely called “the Left.” Anyone who has studied or had contact with revolutionary socialists knows about their history of sectarianism. It makes Protestantism look demure and pure. They have killed or sacrificed  each other without hesitation: just look at what the Stalinists did to Trotskyists and Anarchists during the Spanish Civil War, or the notorious Stalin purges of his former comrades, not to speak of other communists with Jewish backgrounds, a process that ceased only with his death in 1953. But mixing them in with social democrats is absurd, for the motley Marxist-Leninists inhabit mostly such outposts as Pacifica Radio, a few journals, and increasingly-criticized departments of comparative literature and other humanities.

But most crucially, “right-wing social democrats” (as some Leftists call them, distinguishing them from the Second International left-wing social democrats favoring incremental reforms on the way to socialism) have an entirely different lineage from the Marxist-Leninists.  As I have shown in other blogs, European aristocrats, following Bismarck and before that, reformers in Great Britain, “christianized” the new [“jewified”] industrial society with social insurance that we now call the welfare state. (See

Stand-ins for the controlling parent? Conservatives must read their antagonists without caricatures and without mistaking their objectives.  Revolutionary socialists and social democrats are not simply “elitists” who think they know what is best for others (though many think that “the Right” is not only monolithic, but racist, selfish, square, dumb, Islamophobic, xenophobic, indifferent to environmental degradation, gun-totin’ and fanatical, unlike, say, those who run National Public Radio, while many on the Right return the favor, frequently lumping all leftists and social democrats together as elitist conspirators/fascists–Glenn Beck for instance, though I am finding his analysis of increasing statism consistent with a view of the Obama administration as stealth Leninists). It is more complicated than that, though reds and “liberals” do favor various degrees of statism/redistribution to rectify social inequities and achieve what all call “social justice.” In the end, we could make the public discourse on politics more rational by specifying competing theories of the good society:

Libertarians find wealth creation through free markets a good thing and, in the case of the better educated, believe that the state should protect this process through sound monetary policy. The social democratic Left (a.k.a. the moderate men, see sees the state as planning rationally to compensate for what they believe to be a weak and unstable system: capitalism. Nothing is so scary as great gaps between rich and poor, for that portends another bloody French Revolution. If that means that everyone is relatively poor in the quasi-socialist utopia, such asceticism is better than the suffering of the victims du jour while the ever libertine rich feast and thoughtlessly indulge their animal appetites for glitter and other luxuries, hence “bourgeoisifying,” i.e., corrupting, the tastes and desires of the working-class who are now beset by “false consciousness.” And some conservatives, angry combatants in the culture wars, even as they invoke the Constitution as written by the Founding Fathers, seek to impose their own morality on those who don’t share the same “values,” (e.g. pro-life, anti-gay marriage, opposition to stem-cell research using frozen embryos, creationism or intelligent design, the superiority of a rural way of life to decadent cities), thus nullifying the separation of Church and State that has served us so well. But I caution my readers who remain somewhere on “the Left” that conservatives are not evil or demented when they find such developments as the hyper-sexualization of women and children to be dangerous and destructive, or wonder, as I do, how it happened that sadomasochism became acceptable, even fashionable. And remember that Lord Maynard Keynes thought that his measures to relieve a depression were not to be permanently institutionalized.

POPULISM. According to Rasmussen Reports, 55% of the American public is populist, i.e., they believe that government and big business are in cahoots, which makes sense if you understand that small business and big business are in conflict. Interestingly given our generally anticommunist polity, this is the analysis of the Marxist-Leninist Left: the state is an executive committee of the big bourgeoisie (as opposed to the state being an independent institution with its own interests, see sociologist Michael Mann’s books). Populism is a subject I have written about extensively on this website. It claims to speak for “the people” against “the special interests” or “Wall Street” or “the military-industrial complex” or some other dread agglomeration such as “the Jews” or “white males.”As such, it speaks to class resentments and is irrational. Whether of the Left or of the Right, populism is not good for analyzing concrete institutions and their policies. Moreover, as indicated above, it does not distinguish between fractions of those who make decisions for the rest of us, each of which has different and possibly clashing interests with others in the so-called “ruling class.” Populists are incapable of writing accurate histories, but seem content to follow their leaders. And their leaders, insofar as they resort to demagoguery, don’t really care about “the folks.” (Who are the folks? Rural residents and small producers or small businessmen, or these and the industrial working class, including those in the state sector or service occupations? It is this vagueness that marks the demagogue. For more precise definitions of populist demagoguery and its techniques see, or Lowenthal and Guterman’s book on right-wing agitators, still valid.)

*Contending definitions of “fascism.” By “fascists” the social democratic ‘left’ generally means a society practicing “laissez-faire” economics, militarism, hypernationalism (“national chauvinism”), the manipulation of public opinion through heavy-handed propaganda, and imperialism/racism. This absolves social democracy of continuities or comparisons with statist fascism and Nazism, not to speak of their zealousness in attacking “rugged individualism,” the American unpardonable sin that is imagined to persist beyond the pioneer period. By contrast, revolutionary socialists generally refer to the rule of finance capital or monopoly capital or “late capitalism” when they write of fascism and Nazism. Social democrats, true to their Platonic Guardian-philosopher-king heritage, tend to see fascism as the revolt of the masses, as noted above. Much psychiatry/psychoanalysis seeks to manage these “id-forces” and may be more powerful than we think in influencing the medical culture of postwar America. For more on the practice of psychoanalysis at a distance, see The importance of the father as leader and as commander of a tight militarized family unit with high morale cannot be overemphasized, a point forcefully made in the last section of the blog just cited, where I analyze the politics of The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. I am all for keeping the family together, but caution against families keeping their children in a regressed state of mind, that is, either in a state of hero-worship (idealization) or of demonizing “the enemy.” The sane alternative is to look at competing interests, policies, and programs with enough detachment to take on the responsibilities of citizenship in a would-be democratic republic, examining a warring world characterized by every kind of uneven development.

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