Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
Each generation, it is often said, fights the wars of the preceding generation without knowing it. During the nineteenth century men died believing in the cause of royalty or republicanism. In reality, much of their sacrifice was rendered on the altar of the new nationalism. During the twentieth century men fought on behalf of nationalism. Yet the wars they fought were also engendered by dislocations in world markets and by social revolution stimulated by the coming of the industrial age.
Today, many Americans-and certainly most Communists-tend to see international conflict primarily in terms of the cold-war struggle between democracy and Communism. Inadvertently, some Americans thus accept, and project on the international scene, the basic Marxist-Leninist assumption that the decisive conflict of our age concerns the internal character of property relationships and the political organization of society, viewed in terms of the initial impact of the industrial revolution.
Yet these are no longer the basic issues facing mankind. The fundamental dilemmas to which we must respond are quite different and they cannot be analyzed properly in terms of the widely-accepted dichotomy of Western democracy versus totalitarian Communism. In the second half of the twentieth century the developed nations, given new scientific and social developments, will face a real threat to the continued existence of man as a spontaneous, instinctive, rather autonomous and even somewhat mysterious being; the less developed countries, because of overpopulation, economic backwardness and potential political disorder, will be challenged by a fundamental crisis of survival of organized society. Responding to these twin challenges will require a basic reordering of our perspectives.
This is not to say that the cold war no longer exists, or that the United States should opt out of it. That conflict continues and it still dominates international affairs, largely because the Communist states, although now in different ways, still subscribe to the apocalyptic belief that they are riding the crest of the future and that the world is destined to become Communist. In China this belief is proclaimed with ringing militancy, though it is not matched by action. The Soviet Union has muted its verbal militancy but still abets and encourages Communist efforts to gain political control over other societies. The Communist powers remain militant because of the vested interest of their bureaucratic élites in the dogmatic commitment to a Utopian and universalist ideology derived from the nineteenth-century notion that the industrial revolution would follow a uniform global pattern.
The cold war thus continues, but it is no longer a "real" conflict in the sense that the issues involved are no longer historically relevant. The West has long since abandoned whatever hopes it had of "rolling back" Communism-and those hopes were neither very widespread nor ever translated into a systematic and persistent policy. Today, the predominant Western attitude is that Communism will gradually moderate itself, eventually approximating social democracy. That hope is often mixed with a strong dose of wishful thinking; even relatively minor changes in the Soviet Union, such as the Liberman reforms, are hailed as a turn by the Kremlin toward capitalism. Chinese Communism is seen as a more retarded phenomenon, but by and large the predominant expectation seems to be that after Mao's death China will follow the Soviet evolutionary path.
Accordingly, the Western posture toward Communism is not one of crusading militancy. The West does not expect to dismantle the existing social- political organization of the Communist states, but rather relies primarily on the erosive effects of time and the pressures for change within the Communist states themselves. It therefore does not pose a direct threat to the survival of Communism. Of course, the very existence of thriving Western societies challenges Communist ideology, and specific conflicts of interest between particular Western and Eastern powers can be represented by Communist ideologues as involving an inveterate desire to destroy Communism altogether. But this ideological attitude is more revealing about the persistence of certain Communist myths than about the realities of international politics.
Even more important to the argument that the East-West conflict no longer touches on the "real" issues of the second half of the twentieth century is the growing evidence that Communism itself has exhausted its revolutionary potential and that its further major expansion is unlikely. Communism clearly will not take over any advanced Western society. The Communist parties there are decaying and desperately seeking social anchorage. Some, like the Italian, see salvation in opening an "ecumenical" dialogue with the Catholics; some, like the French, seek a common front with the Socialists. In almost all cases, the process involves profound revision along social-democratic lines and an erosion of the revolutionary Leninist tradition. Nowhere in the developed world is there any evidence that a Communist party with a program modeled on the Soviet experience would stand the slightest chance of making an effective popular and electoral appeal. It could only do so by "out-social-democratizing" the Social Democrats.
Moreover, on the level of the direct confrontation, the Soviet Union learned most painfully in October 1962 that it is still hopelessly outclassed by the United States as a military power. This asymmetry is not likely to be altered in the near future. The expectation of economically surpassing the United States by 1970, so boldly proclaimed just a few years ago by the Soviet leadership, has now given way to recognition of the fact that for a long time to come the Soviet Union will remain a second-class economic power, with major shortages in food and consumer production. Rising nationality tensions in the Soviet Union-which may soon assume major proportions-are likely to limit further the Soviet capacity for playing a very assertive role in the world.
In the Third World, the evidence is not so clear-cut, but recent developments there also suggest that the cold war is losing its external and internal relevance. The days of posturing and the grandiloquent, non- aligned internationalism of Sukarno, Nkrumah and others are giving way to inward-oriented, non-aligned nationalism, concerned primarily with internal economic development. The new élites, particularly the younger generation of engineers, professionals, doctors, are preoccupied with tackling the social-economic problems of their countries and extremely suspicious of solutions which imply some ideological short-cut to social well-being. They advocate programs specifically designed for their own needs, and capital investment-not ideology-is what really interests them. The fate of Communists in Ghana, Indonesia, Algeria and Egypt shows how utopianism is giving way to pragmatic nationalism.
This is not to say that the Third World has passed its crisis point-far from it, as will be argued below. But its future is not likely to be defined in terms of cold-war issues as we have known them during the last twenty years, and particularly not in terms of the Communist conception of the historical progression of mankind toward a Communist form of society.
The new issues that constitute the underlying reality of international politics today stem from a fundamental revolution in the more advanced countries of man's relationship to society (both social and political) and from a basic reordering of the international system into states that are developed and underdeveloped, increasingly affluent and impoverished, overwhelmingly powerful and relatively impotent. The first poses a challenge to the individual being; the second, to the survival of organized society. It would be disastrous if in the nuclear age statesmen responded to these twin challenges in terms of old conflicts that are no longer relevant.
The social revolution already in progress in the more developed states- above all in America-is likely to be shaped by the widespread adoption of automation and cybernation for social and economic purposes, and by the application of specialized sciences such as biochemistry and molecular biology to the genetic and personal development of man. Man's environment and man himself will more and more be subject to purposive control and manipulation. The consequence will be a fundamental transformation of our society.[i]
Our concepts of work and leisure will in all probability undergo a basic reversal. Within a mere few decades leisure may become a burden while creative work will be a privilege increasingly restricted to the gifted few. The relationship between employment and way of life will then have to be revised. The concepts of retirement and of unemployment will have to be readjusted to the new realities of an increasingly automated economy. This will bring about basic changes in the social functions performed by trade unions-which may object to further reductions in the work-week-and by governmental welfare arrangements. The clearly defined relationship between earning capacity and consumption will also be blurred, with perhaps a need to establish arbitrary standards to assure a minimum level of consumption.
In some ways even more far-reaching will be the changes affecting the individual himself. How will we preserve the integrity and freedom of man as an individual? As a physical being he will become more malleable, given the trends in medical sciences. As a personality, he will become increasingly subject to external manipulation, capable eventually of altering his behavior, his intelligence, his psychological state, his sexual life-in effect, himself. As man approaches the stage where he can "program" himself as he now programs his computer, he may find himself increasingly denatured. The simultaneous weakening of religious belief may create both stress and emptiness. In some respects the alienated anti-Viet Nam war demonstrators are a portent of things to come. Their attitude as well as their personal behavior are a manifestation of a psychological crisis inherent in modern society. Viet Nam provides an outlet for basic cravings and fears, and if that issue did not exist, some other one would provide an excuse for the expression of personal and political alienation.
Cumulatively, these social and individual changes-many of which will make for a better life-may present a potent challenge to the relevancy and effective operation of our democratic processes. Our institutions are based on the belief that man can and should govern himself. Yet the problems that are likely to dominate our lives in the decades to come may creep upon us without attracting sufficient advance notice and may not fit into the established modes of our political dialogue. The issues that should increasingly agitate the citizen will have little in common with variants of welfare democracy or dictatorial Communism. Rather, the concerned citizen will have to take a stand on such questions as the form, organization and degree of permissible social control in providing for mass leisure; the character of education for a society in which a great many will not need their education for employment because much of the labor will be taken over by machines; the scope of social welfare in conditions which increasingly assume relative well-being for all; the psychological consequences of seemingly purposeless lives, with the consequent possibility of widespread individual and social malaise; the source of ultimate decision concerning the sex, personality and even the intelligence of one's own offspring; the integration on a national and even international basis of weather and climate controls.
These issues, to be sure, will still involve and perhaps even give new urgency to the old dilemmas of large versus small-scale social organization, of central versus local government, or of a proper balance between social responsibility and individual autonomy. The point, however, is that the discussion of them will require an entirely new frame of reference and perhaps even major changes in the political structure of our society. Neither the discussion nor the possible reforms-if they are to have meaning-can have much in common with the traditional concepts that still shape our domestic and external perspectives.
The problem is different, but no less urgent, with respect to the Third World. Present trends suggest that the next several decades may see a widening gap between the developed societies and the underdeveloped ones, not only in their ways of life but perhaps even in their perceptions of the meaning of life itself. If it is true that the developed societies-America first of all, but Europe and Russia in its wake-are about to undergo a major societal change, the chances are that the profound differences between them and the Third World will be further accentuated.
At the same time, the limited capacity of the new nations to deal with their problems of unemployment, overpopulation and even starvation may create conditions of chaos and contribute to a state of international anarchy. The widening gap between the two cultures and the growing frustration and hatred among the have-nots for the haves could also contribute to a mixture of racial populism, nationalism and international anarchism-the projection abroad of a nihilistic mood like that of the anarchists of some decades ago.
It could be argued that this threat to international stability will be minimized by the continuing revolution in weaponry that is contributing to the gap between the few powerful nations and the others, and certainly between the industrially advanced nations and the underdeveloped ones. The RAND study, cited above, itemizes likely weapons developments in the next few decades. They range from biochemical devices, orbiting weapons systems, directed-energy weapons and terminal air-launched anti-missile defenses to the mass-hypnotic influencing of enemy forces and the use of domesticated dolphins for anti-submarine reconnaissance! Allowing for a certain amount of military-science fictionalizing, the basic pattern is none the less one of increasing disproportion of power among nation-states.
However, instability in the Third World can easily affect relations among the developed nations, reviving expectations rooted in otherwise fading ideological assumptions. Moreover, the asymmetry of power does not preclude nuclear proliferation among the weak, and perhaps the eventual use of nuclear weapons in their own conflicts. Finally, instability and hatred for the rich among the poor, and the irresistible temptation to the rich to engage in tactical manipulation of these conditions, will further impede any effort to come to grips with the basic problems of the Third World, thus perpetuating and aggravating the imbalance.
The governing ideologies of the principal developed states simply do not provide adequate guidelines for meeting these challenges. Unlike the past, when social change was slow enough to permit concomitant adjustments in man's outlook, today's pace of change is so fast that contemporary ideologies can hardly adapt to-even less anticipate-the problems of tomorrow. We are thus witnessing the spectacle of several major ideologies struggling to encompass the implications of situations for which their systems of thought have made little or no allowance. Ideology is becoming a conservative and not a revolutionary force. The end of ideology may not yet be at hand, but the relevance of several ideologies seems to be ending.
Soviet Communism, for one, has become a sterile and conservative dogma. The Party is a brake on social progress and its response to many social dilemmas, such as alienation or anti-semitism or delinquency, has been to pretend that they do not exist. The Catholic Church, having taken the historic step toward ecumenism in respect to religious doctrine, has yet to face the reality of overpopulation. Pragmatic American liberalism is finding it difficult to combine the responsibility inherent in America's global power with the role of precursor of global social revolution. As a result, it faces the danger of polarization, with conservatives emphasizing the global power and liberal-progressives emphasizing social responsibility, each side minimizing, possibly even negating, the other's objectives. Nationalism, in spite of the infusion into it of new social content, encourages license and excess by the élites of the new states and, in Western Europe, frustrates the more creative efforts to overcome the bitter legacies of national conflict. Moreover, the old ideologies (and the conflicts associated with them) are unresponsive to the fact that similar internal and external problems impose themselves on such otherwise ideologically different societies as the United States and the Soviet Union, or on India and China.
The absence of an ideological tradition has often made America respond to contemporary challenges in an extremely short-range and excessively pragmatic fashion; we have over-concentrated on means and techniques at the expense of long-range perspectives. Yet paradoxically we have also tended to become wedded to particular formulas and concepts once they were formulated and crystallized.
Still, America has proved more adaptable than many other nations to changed conditions and novel circumstances. Thus we have accepted our inherent responsibility as the world's preeminent power, as well as the onerous task of turning international relations to the "real" issues facing mankind.
America cannot, as some would wish, ignore the cold war or abandon the obligations it has undertaken. A sudden, peremptory restructuring of the international balance of power would be destabilizing and dangerous. However, it is imperative that the cold war be seen primarily as a means of refuting the dogmatic ideological concepts of the Communists while gradually creating conditions such that some Communist nations-particularly the Soviet Union-begin to perceive the advantages of increased global coöperation among the more developed states.
A community of the developed nations must eventually come into being if they are to respond effectively to the crisis that the Third World now faces and will face with increasing gravity. Continued divisions among the developed states-particularly those derived from outmoded ideological concepts-will negate the efforts of individual states to aid the Third World, while in Europe itself they will contribute to a resurgence of nationalism.
That the Communist states are not immune to the process of change and to intelligent Western initiatives is attested to by the evolution of Jugoslav thinking and behavior. Less than twenty years ago, the Jugoslavs talked not unlike the Chinese of today, and it should be remembered that one of the reasons for the Stalin-Tito break was the Jugoslavs' pressure on the Soviets to adopt a more militant posture toward the West. Today, the Jugoslavs are leading all Communist states in economic reform, in the openness of their society, in ideological moderation. Recently they joined GATT and their membership in EFTA-eventually perhaps the Common Market-is a probability. While still committed to the notion of "socialism," their views on international politics are moderate and they have had a significant impact on Soviet thinking. In 1958, the Soviet leadership condemned the newly adopted revisionist Jugoslav program. By 1966 the Kremlin was liberally plagiarizing from it.
Similar trends are developing elsewhere in the Communist world. To be sure, they are opposed by entrenched bureaucrats, but in the long run the reactionaries seem to be fighting a losing battle. Social forces are against them and the conservative élites are everywhere on the defensive. It is doubtful that they can reverse-though they certainly can delay-the trend toward a more open and humanistic and less ideological society. The resistance of those régimes dominated by entrenched conservative bureaucracies would be further weakened if the West did more to discredit the cold war as a self-serving doctrine of the Communist rulers. President Kennedy's American University speech had some effect in that regard.
An even more complicated task is the one posed by domestic change in the developed nations. Here, too, America is the pioneer, history's guinea pig. Our democratic process traditionally has involved a response to crises. Many of our governmental agencies-for example, the urban and welfare departments-developed because social needs belatedly made themselves obvious to all. Increasingly, the emphasis should be on anticipating needs and thus on the development of institutions capable of dealing with rapid social change and mitigating its consequences. This may require major reorientation in the average citizen's perception of the world around him. Finally, it would be desirable to stimulate a broad public discussion on the role and character of the individual in the scientific age about to set upon us and perhaps even to subsume us. In doing so, new arid more relevant issues will come to the fore, replacing the repetitive cant of outmoded ideological conflict.
Our success or failure in adapting our democratic institutions to these new conditions, while safeguarding the individual personality, may in large measure determine the role this country will be playing in the world by the end of this century.
[i] See the projections assembled by T. J. Gordon and O. Helmer, "Report on a Long-Range Forecasting Study," RAND Corporation, September 1964. Also the statement, "Triple Revolution," Liberation, April 1964.