Prosperity as a Crypt to Crisis

There is no image of prosperity which is not at the same time an image of crisis. I modify here Walter Benjamin’s famous dictum from Über den Begriff der Geschichte.1 For the current American context, we’ve advanced into a period where national prosperity is realized through social and cultural damage. That is to say, it is a context where tightened borders and criminalized immigration is accompanied by domestic instability and global unrest; where the expansion of global industry and capital accumulation is attended with ecological damage and economic collapse; and where the protection of national security necessarily involves orchestrating foreign wars, heightening surveillance, and reducing civil liberties.

The U.S.’s obsession with national security and prosperity is part and parcel of the American character more generally – one that fetishizes its constitution, brandishes its military through grandiose advertisements and popular television, and unapologetically relies on market fundamentalism and consumer culture. These elements uphold the image of a prosperous nation. Yet, that image has as its dialectical counterimage the enduring damage waged throughout the world. A sufficient account, then, of the ‘good American citizen’ – one who embodies the American moral license and authenticity – shall also be of one who owes his or her sense of virtue to every crisis that America creates. Global catastrophe is also ours, and is no less part of the nation we aim to protect.

In 1701, Daniel Defoe composed the satiric poem, “A True Born Englishman.” The poem was rendered as a commentary on British patriotism and the self-granted sense of superiority. The final stanza is especially prophetic if we apply it to the American national character:

‘Tis well that virtue gives nobility
How shall we else the want of birth and blood supply?
Since scarce one family is left alive
Which does not from some foreigner derive.

Americans, too, pride ourselves on our foreign heritage and ethnic co-mingling. But, despite what we like to tell ourselves, this history is not merely a cosmopolitan history of foreign migration. Rather, that American-ness is the American-ness built upon imperialism, colonization, and widespread violence. This is the double-sided meaning of “derive from”; it could be interpreted as being part of or based upon a foreign, multi-ethnic heritage. Yet, it can also be read to suggest that the national character derives its sense of self from the endless injustices committed against “some foreigner” – one whose vulnerability and instability is manufactured and preyed upon by America’s globalized mode of economic dominance, as Pierre Bourdieu would have it.

America’s raison d’État

To be a patriotic American is to buy into the gospel of prosperity – to buy the notion that a strong, thriving economy is a mark of ecumenical triumph. Politicians and business leaders alike congratulate themselves for assuring that the GDP is continuously growing. And we’re supposed to believe that this trend is a sign of productivity and prosperity.

What we fail to recognize, however, is that triumph and disaster are bound to one another – that they are complements, not opposites. To be clear, I’m not simply arguing that the U.S. manufactures and exploits crisis to fortify its national position and market domination. Naomi Klein has already convincingly argued this point in her book The Shock Doctrine. I’m arguing, rather, that crisis is prosperity’s symmetrical inverse, growing parallel to and alongside whatever campaign for national success the U.S. happens to be running.

So long as, for example, the U.S. agencies continue to round up undocumented immigrants, all in the name of maintaining national security, there will also be a widespread fear among immigrant groups. For these families, therefore, the push toward national security doesn’t allay their worries about security; it does the exact opposite. Similarly, for nations around the world – particularly those who remain in America’s crosshairs – the narrative of anti-terrorism remains a code-switch for ‘invasion’ and ‘conflict-creation’. These are the crises and abuses that will be forever linked to the enterprise of (so-called) national flourishing.

The unwillingness to concede lessons of history, or to apply sound scientific models to avoid catastrophe and environmental destruction, should be cause for our collective outrage, but yet should not be too surprising. These figure primarily into America’s raison d’État– the stubborn neoliberalism, inviting us to be the country that consumes the most natural resources and lives unsustainably. In the name of unbridled, individual choice and a thriving free market, we can comfortably sleep while environmental, social, and ecological damage continue to ensue. Under the present ideological scheme, it’s as much a sign of our national strength as it is a sign of global catastrophe.

“America first” is Trump’s tagline for this endeavor, and it has been alarmingly effective in misdirecting focus from the impact that this isolationism has had around the world. As Bill Frelick, Director of Refugee Rights Program, points out, the basic outline of Trump’s ‘America First’ foreign policy has been consistent in one particular dimension: “the stance that refugees should be kept out, diverted to other countries, or, preferably, confined to their home countries.” If we were to actually give a qualitative assessment of how successful this policy is, we could easily measure it by how much instability it has created, how much more it has exacerbated the refugee crisis, and how much it has emboldened foreign distrust. Despite what the current president thinks this image shows, it cannot exist without at the same time being an image of crisis.

Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, imagines an alternate history during World War II – one in which Charles Lindbergh assumes the presidency in 1940, under his promise to isolate the U.S. from intervening in the war. His rise to the presidency follows Lindbergh’s real-life stint as spokesman for the America First Committee; and in the novel, his popularity and eventual nomination stem from his unabashedly isolationist proclamations.

Roth’s novel is meant to reflect the disruption and poignant heartache that families endure under such a regime. One particularly telling moment of the novel occurs when Roth’s narrative voice reflects upon the historic enigma of Lindbergh’s rise to the presidency:

And as Lindbergh’s election couldn’t have made clearer to me, the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we school children studied as ‘History,’ harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.

This is how the U.S. was able to solidify a national identity divorced from catastrophe: hiding the “terror of the unforeseen”. So long as the official historic record denies these terrors, then the nation can mythologize and celebrate its victories.

This crisis is our crisis

I propose that any claim to American authenticity should also be a claim to its crises, both domestic and global. We should recognize that economic and ecological damage have always sustained American prosperity, growth, and security.

The values that the U.S. holds most dear concomitantly affect the lives excluded from constitutional representation. The right to free speech entails the right to incite violence; the right to bear arms entails the right to stand your ground; the right to a free press entails the right to misinform; and the right to the pursuit of happiness entails the right to consume and exploit. With these inalienable rights, the U.S. is also permitted to commit atrocities in the name of its hallowed constitution.

In the U.S., to criticize the constitution is to commit the worst kind of blasphemy. This is due, in part, to a mythology surrounding the founding fathers who were seen to be carrying on the values of the American people and embedding them within the supreme law of the land. As Bertell Ollman argues:

Their political savvy and common sense were now seen as all-surpassing wisdom, and their concern for their own class of property owners (and, to a lesser extent, sections of the country and occupational groups) had been elevated to universal altruism (in the liberal version) or self-sacrificing patriotism (in the preferred conservative view).

This document, in short, confirms the self-image America wants: the image of prosperity, universal altruism, and self-sacrificing patriotism.

Yet, it’s an incomplete image. For what is beyond the representation of the constitution are those who do not, as Ollman argues, enjoy property ownership that connects them to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They are the ones who are victims of crisis and disaster that we allow ourselves to create.

This is a natural outcome of this prefabricated American identity –  an identity which shows deference to prosperity and security, while self-justifying its imperialistic enterprises. After all, strict adherence to these principles has given the U.S. license to sacrifice anything that gets in the way of its ordained rights. Yet, if we hold claim to our crises and the devastating destruction that occurs in the name of national security, prosperity, and success, then we would be quick to re-think this fundamentalist mindset.

Instead of granting authority to history, we can and should destabilize the universalizing narratives to which we’ve grown accustomed. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari famously point out that embracing such a narrow, unifying vision of identity – such as that which is based upon national myth, history, or filiation – grants legitimacy to fascism. Rather, when we recognize the singular multiplicities that characterize our existence, thus deteritorializing the pernicious confines of nation and history, we can re-think how much credence we lend to a mythologized history and to the agenda of national prosperity.

True resistance starts with delegitimizing power, and ends with mobilizing ourselves with new myths and a new vision for stability.

There needs, moreover, to be sufficient accountability for the present. To be alive at a particular time requires that we throw our entire fleshed existence into the chaos of our historical moment. Re-write the American myth to reveal the destruction we’ve created in the wake of our path. Point to the world around us and concede that this crisis is our crisis.

  1. Walter Benjamin. “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”. 1940. []

Kevin Potter is a University Assistant and Ph.D candidate in the Department of English at the University of Vienna.

Read other articles by Kevin.