Citizens International

America, From Exceptionalism to Nihilism


MASHOBRA, India — “The world is going America’s way,” Fareed Zakaria wrote in 2008. “Countries are becoming more open, market friendly and democratic.” Since the fall of communism, American leaders in politics, business and journalism have repeatedly broadcast the conceit that we live, or will soon live, in the best of all possible worlds. Not even 9/11, the bloody stalemates in Iraq and Afghanistan or the worst economic crisis since the Depression challenged faith in a benignly Americanized world. Barack Obama declared last year that “if you had to choose any time in the course of human history to be alive, you’d choose this one. Right here in America, right now.”

What finally shattered such Panglossian notions was the demagogue on the campaign trail last year who ranted, credibly to many, about “American carnage.” It took the rise of Donald J. Trump in a harshly polarized country to shatter the belief that, as the critic Philip Rahv wrote in the early 1950s, the United States “is in its very nature immune to tragic social conflicts and collisions.”

Rahv was writing out of the West’s early 20th-century experience of endless economic crises, wrenching social and political conflicts and far-right insurrections. Today, an America led by a Twitter troll, who was elected and now governs with the help of fake news, manifests not only similar pathologies, which are characteristic of modernity — but also something more ominous: an unprecedented onslaught against the very notion of truth.

Extravagant promises by ruling elites, and their unexamined assumptions, are at least partly to blame for this moral breakdown in the world’s most powerful country. In 2011, for instance, Mr. Obama had claimed, “We are perfectly poised to make the 21st century again the American Century.” But such onward-and-upward narratives seemed to mock the suffering, despair and frustration exposed in different ways by Black Lives Matter or the white Rust-Belt proletariat. Mr. Obama, who recently accepted a very lucrative speaking engagement on Wall Street, now looks like just one of the fortunate members of historically depressed minorities who mistake their own upward mobility for collective advance.

Generalizing about the world at large on the basis of personal success, or proclaiming that life has never been so wonderful, can be politically disastrous, it turns out, especially when loss, decay and fear sum up the experiences of many other people. We will have learned nothing from Mr. Trump’s victory if we do not examine today how and why American elites came to indulge in ressentiment-generating boosterism just as economic and cultural inequality was becoming intolerable to so many, and how their loss of intellectual credibility and moral authority brought about the post-truth era.

The elites’ jauntiness in an age of decline, so weird in retrospect, deviated sharply from the mood of cultural anxiety among American intellectuals during the 1950s, the high noon of American power. With much of Europe and Asia in ruins after World War II, an isolationist country had become world leader. But the very real possibility of another calamitous conflict, this time with a nuclear-armed ideological rival, weighed on the minds and sensibilities of many thoughtful men and women. The recent descent into barbarism of Germany, one of the world’s great industrial, cultural and intellectual powers, had already suggested that much was wrong with modern civilization.

Critics as various as Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Hannah Arendt, Dwight MacDonald and Richard Hofstadter grappled with the possibility that the individual — disoriented by radical change, detached from traditional faith and other ethical constraints — was prone to manipulation by the machineries of propaganda and entertainment. The titles of some of the decade’s bestsellers — “The Hidden Persuaders,” “The Power Elite,” “The Lonely Crowd,” “The Organization Man,” “One-Dimensional Man,” “Irrational Man” — underlined the new threats that a hyper-rationalist society devoted to profit and consumption posed to human freedom. “Our gadget-filled paradise suspended in a hell of international insecurity certainly does not offer us even the happiness of which the former century dreamed,” wrote Reinhold Niebuhr, whom Mr. Obama has described as an early inspiration.

The unrivaled greatness of America, though a cause for self-congratulation to many, also incited much uneasiness. In a 1960 five-part series in Life magazine about the “national purpose,” which asked if America was “great in the right way,” Adlai Stevenson — a presidential candidate no less cerebral than Mr. Obama — worried that, “self-deceit has slackened our grip on reality.” Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer illuminated in their works the contradiction that, as James Baldwin put it, Americans were “afflicted by the world’s highest standard of living and what is probably the world’s most bewilderingly empty way of life.”

The sociologist C. Wright Mills described how an elite connected by Ivy League education and overlapping interests could steal the choicest fruits of American progress. Walter Lippmann worried that the promise of private wealth-creation was a weak moral basis for a national community. For many midcentury thinkers, nihilism, a catastrophic breakdown of faith in national ideology and institutions that had occurred in Europe, was also a possibility in America.

The 1960s and 1970s did turn out to reveal a country sharply divided along generational, racial, religious, gender and political lines. White and black, gay and straight, men and women, religious and secular, antiwar protesters and hard-hatted patriots all faced off. For a time, the founding principles of American society — the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — seemed like they would be unable to adjudicate between the competing, often clashing, interests.

But the American creed, originally formulated by 18th-century slave-owners and zealously upheld by white males across the ideological spectrum, still managed to command broad enough loyalty. This was largely because no alternative seemed as effective at generating prosperity and advancing personal freedoms. Gradual improvements, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the war on poverty and the gains of feminism, maintained faith in the American Dream — that most seductive ideology and substitute religion of the modern world.

By the 1980s, Reagan or Reaganites would brush aside any suggestion that there was a “national malaise.” The collapse of Communism seemed to vindicate the American model. The disappearance of an antagonist that had defined America’s self-image for much of the 20th century unleashed the solipsistic idealism that Niebuhr, among many midcentury intellectuals, had warned against. Postcommunist Russia received an army of American economists, technocrats and journalists determined to usher the country into American-style democracy and free markets.

It has been too easily forgotten that the calamitous failure of these “market Bolsheviks,” as the economist Joseph Stiglitz called them, helped spawn the first major demagogue of our time: Vladimir V. Putin. Mr. Putin came to power in Russia in the late 1990s on the back of his promise to sort things out after the country’s experiment in privatization and deregulation led to a collapse in incomes and standards of health, and a rise in unemployment and mortality rates. This American-assisted debacle in Russia long preceded the unraveling of Iraq and the great unwinding in America itself.

It already revealed how a networked elite, consisting of neoliberal globalizers and liberal internationalists as well as neoconservative intellectuals, had amassed unaccountable influence while becoming a service class for politicians. Subsequent fiascos — the rise of Al Qaeda and then the Islamic State, the crisis of unregulated financial capitalism followed by the bailout of culpable bankers — confirmed that this elite was too entrenched to be displaced by its failures and too arrogant to learn from them.

Mr. Putin’s success in stoking a bitter Russian nationalism had signaled early our age of anger, one in which demagogues would be best placed to exploit the rage of those left behind, cheated, disoriented and scorned by global regimes of privatization. And yet this record is barely discussed today, even as centrist and liberal intellectuals routinely accuse Mr. Putin of trying to influence political outcomes in America. In another self-protective move, these intellectuals have taken to blaming identity politics for Mr. Trump’s support among white male voters.

Some continue to offer a limited variety of can-doism, in which the march of progress — lately landmarked by bathroom access for transgenders — will surely resume at the next available opportunity, in 2020. The acclaim with which both liberal internationalists like Zakaria and neocons like Bill Kristol greeted the Trump administration’s recent missile strikes in Syria revealed a largely unimpaired fantasy of righteous omnipotence.

Such an ostrich-like retreat into the sands of American exceptionalism postpones a necessary reckoning with the issues that Mills, Arendt and Lippmann confronted in the 1950s. Mr. Trump’s war on America’s institutions, which he wages with fake news and conspiracy theories, is only part of a global assault on a vital, if always fragile, connection between politics and truth, and its effects will surely outlast him.

In the United States, the sanguine vision of a more perfect union is what long bridged the chasm between the promise of socioeconomic and intellectual progress and the brutal reality of structural violence, poverty and inequality. Mr. Obama insisted in his farewell address in January that America “has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.”

It could be argued that this frequently asserted and widely believed American creed of continuous and irreversible progress is what saved a diverse society not only from tragic social conflicts, but also from the mass manipulators who have periodically ruined other countries with their quack solutions. Today, however, more people seem to have seen through the constructed nature of this quasi-religious faith: It’s credible only if you believe in it.

They feel deceived by a class of politicians, experts, technocrats and journalists which had claimed to be in possession of the truth and offered a series of propositions that turned out to be misleading or wrong: the rising tide of globalization will lift all boats, the market is free and fair, shock therapy would bring capitalism to Russia, shock-and-awe therapy would deliver democracy to Iraq. Many of the aggrieved now see the elites, who offered to expedite progress while expanding their own power and wealth, as self-serving charlatans.

Everywhere the disaffected are recoiling from establishment politicians and the mainstream media, and succumbing to alternative facts — a fragmentation of truth quickened by digital technology. It is in this sense, unanticipated by optimists like Mr. Obama, that the 21st century is proving to be the American Century.

Authoritarian regimes like China and Iran stave off challenges to their authority by limiting internet access and repairing myths of national unity. But the country taken to be the world’s oldest modern democracy leads the free world in its helplessness before the dissolution of its most cherished beliefs and values. Rejoining the tormented history of modernity under an obsessive liar, America has accelerated its most insidious tendency: nihilism. APRIL 28, 2017

*Pankaj Mishra is an Indian author and writer of literary and political essays. His books include Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond. His latest book is From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia.Pankaj Mishra’s most recent book is “Age of Anger: A History of the Present.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *