Economic Apocalypse or the ‘Parturition of Self-Knowledge’

by Joshua H. Liberatore

For a while now I’ve thought that a handful of essays in our language should be reread every three or four years, throughout one’s lifetime, just to keep the ideas fresh and secure in our collective consciousness. Among these would have to be Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience” (1949), Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963), and certainly George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (1946). All of these works offer critical reminders of the vigilance and discipline thoughtful people must maintain against threats mounted by dangerous political monopolies, ideologies of coercion, and the concomitant erosion of individual liberties. Given the financial volatility of recent weeks, it occurs to me that Anthony Burgess’s insightful “Is America Falling Apart?” – first published as an editorial in the New York Times November 7, 1971 – is a necessary addition to this short list of prescient commentaries. Burgess, the British novelist and critic best known for A Clockwork Orange, had just spent a year as a visiting professor at Princeton University, and he proved himself a keen observer of some disturbing trends in American society, patterns whose legacy we face with greater acuity every day in 2008.

    The overarching theme of Burgess’s essay is that America’s historical resistance to government intervention and centralized authority (for certain measures anyway) is the root cause of various degradations in services and infrastructure that Burgess observed firsthand. Such an attitude was leading the United States down a path of psychic and physical self-destruction. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, what most struck a European visitor like Burgess was the dreadful state of public transportation and roadways in and between American cities. He also noted a beleaguered education system. Concerning the rather prosperous New Jersey school district in which he placed his six-year-old son at the time, he remarked: “America has always despised its teachers and, as a consequence, it had been granted the teachers it deserves.” He was amazed, in turn, at how disposable and poor our consumer products seemed in comparison with the tremendous might and ingenuity of our industrial capacity.

    Burgess attributed these domestic shortcomings to America’s being what he called a “prewar country, psychologically unprepared for one thing to go wrong.” Because America had never been thoroughly devastated by the wars that had brought Europe to its knees twice in thirty years, it had simply never expected its government to offer more in the way of comprehensive public services. He could also see that though many Americans took visible pride in cultivating a sense of self-reliance and autonomy – where transportation, education, and consumer satisfaction were concerned – America was also showing some serious fissures in its foundations. Burgess was astute to see that “where private ownership prevails, public amenities decay or are prevented from coming into being.” In the wake of the current mortgage meltdown, we’d do well to reflect on this imported wisdom.

    What President Bush is now fond of calling “the ownership society” has basically relieved governments – state and local, but most egregiously Federal – of the responsibility to look after the people’s basic safety, health, and tuition. Burgess was well aware of the American fear of state planning, long associated with the failed communism of the Eastern Bloc. What Americans neglected to see (and often still do) is that some degree of socialism has worked quite well in the rest of Europe. In one of the most trenchant passages of the essay, Burgess remarked:

America is anachronistic in so many ways, and not least in its clinging to a belief – now known to be unviable – in the capacity of the individual citizen to do everything for himself. Americans are admirable in their distrust of the corporate state – they have fought both Fascism and Communism – but they forget that there is a use for everything, even the loathsome bureaucratic machine. America needs a measure of socialization, as Britain needed it. Things – especially those we need most – don’t always pay their way, and it is here that the state must enter, dismissing the profit element. Part of the present American neurosis, again, springs from awareness of this but inability to do anything about practical implementation. Perhaps only a country full of bombed cities feels capable of this kind of social revolution.

Burgess understood that sacrifices were inevitable, in so far as budgets are limited. He knew that throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, many European countries – England, France, and Italy – had been forced to cut back significantly on military spending in order to keep their vast social programs solvent and operational. Imperial egos were bruised, of course, but even Great Britain was wise enough to see that its world ambitions had become too expensive, too unwieldy, and spending at home was not only necessary but indeed the only humane option.

    Nearly forty years later, America is still not, strictly speaking, a “country full of bombed cities” and has still never seen the kind of mass slaughter and brazen destruction of property that led most European governments to invest more heavily in what we naively call “social services,” as if basic health care and general literacy were mere bonuses and not the core elements of a stable, self-respecting community. The European birthright of guaranteed health care, generous unemployment and pension benefits, fair and equal, top-down education programs, and of course, high-quality mass transportation grew out of the traumatic experience of near self-effacement. But even after the terrorist attacks of September 11th in 2001, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the Minnesota bridge collapse in August of 2007 – just to list three of the more memorable policy failures – many Americans still do not seem persuaded that our government should and could do more to maintain and improve quality of life at home. (Even if we must accept the inevitability of fruitless wars abroad and a “defense” budget that readily consumes more than fifty percent of tax revenues, to say nothing of deficits beyond comprehension.) Thus, we are moved to repeat Burgess’s provocative query: Is America falling apart? As the financial markets nearly collapsed and one institution after another went bankrupt in the past few weeks, many at home and around the world undoubtedly asked that very question. In the absence of a promising answer, what we did hear was a frenzied response from the Federal government, as this most Republican of Republican administrations was forced to silence its rhetoric against regulation and government intervention and take activist measures, through the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve, to staunch the fiscal hemorrhage. A profoundly deregulated mortgage market and the bad borrowing habits of ownership-minded Americans had apparently caused the crisis, and only the deep pockets of the U.S Treasury, with its trusty flow of loans from Asian and European banks, could feasibly effect a turnaround.

    As investors and homeowners watched, drop-jawed, from the sidelines, our government stepped up to a Herculean labor in damage control, the very kind that Burgess had seen England embrace after World War II, the very kind he figured Americans eschewed from the depths of their souls even when the need was often clear and pressing. First Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, then Bear Stearns, then AIG – sorry Lehman Brothers! – then Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs felt the clammy but firm clutch of the Federal colossus under their trembling thighs. And Americans of both stripes knew something remarkable was happening, something only vaguely captured by the grandfatherly reassurance of the gentle Henry Paulson and his confused looking boss, who looked the nation in the face and postured confidence in “the system.” Ominous phrases such as “market correction” and “injected liquidity” were uttered, measures undertaken to forestall the “disorderly failure” of certain institutions. No one yet knows what the result will be of these massive mobilizations of taxpayer-funded resources (estimated cost: $700 billion), but what’s already noteworthy is the mere willingness to engage such options, not to mention the public’s trust that they will be effective in the long run. Questions remain about who the primary beneficiaries of the bailouts will be – CEOs and corporate board members or lowly bank account- and mortgage-holders. Our leaders assure us that they are acting with the interests of both Wall Street and Main Street at heart. Is such a balance possible?

    During a political epoch in which we have spent an unfathomable amount of money, dedicated immeasurable resources, sacrificed much human life, and indeed relinquished sacred civil liberties in the name of such nebulous causes as “the global war on terror” and “ensuring the blessings of liberty” overseas, we must recognize that the comforting myths of self-reliance and rugged individualism and our presumed distaste for government interference are as vacuous and illusory as our naïve faith in the fabled free market. Our government interferes all the time, just not in those areas of public life where we shudder to countenance the intrusion of – dare we say it? – socialism. In 1971 Anthony Burgess discerned a sort of mild neurosis among Americans who knew that the system was broken but could not foresee a solution. But he also interpreted this neurosis as a positive signal that Americans too felt something akin to the collective pain that had ultimately delivered necessary social improvements to Europe in the post-war period. This general uneasiness constituted, he decided, the early pangs of a wounded innocence giving way to realism. “The agony that America is undergoing,” he said, “is not to be associated with breakdown so much as with the parturition of self-knowledge.” If the recent actions of the government to insert itself in realms it typically chooses to ignore serve as any indication of a shifting paradigm, we wait patiently for its further translation into much needed domestic improvement projects of equal proportions.

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