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The Liberal Psyche: Session Two

In this second session of our psychomachia, the author sets the stage for an examination of how wealth crosses party lines and has much to do with not only the present ineffectiveness of government but the failure of liberals to adopt a strong critique of an economic system that has put wealth into the hands of only 20% of the population.

Joseph Natoli

Liberals are very cautious to conceal the presence of any attachment to the left and downright fearful of using any of the language of a socialist critique. This is a problem if your problem is the excesses of your economic system and you need to go to the left to find any critique at all.

Both former President Clinton and President Obama were aware that a neoliberal story has overwhelming power in our psychomachia and already owns our political assessments. But more significantly the neoliberal story shapes our valuing as well as our path to determining the meaning of words and actions. Simply put, the neoliberal framing of the world has become our preferred ready-to-hand delivery system, the resident programming of our consciousness.

Clinton’s liberal ambitions were brought to heel almost immediately and his “come back” was to “triangulate,” or, as he and Tony Blair called it, employ a “Third Way.” Obama , who seems more devoted to pragmatism as an ideology than either liberalism or any variety of socialism, was without any path after it became clear that what is pragmatic within a neoliberal order of things is what serves that order.

Occupy Wall Street opened a path that would offer solutions and remedies that would work for the “99%.” It was a bad that Obama had refused to open even after it was clear in the Great Recession of 2008 that a serious and sustained critique of a capitalism "gone wild" was desperately needed. After OWS, Obama could now talk class warfare and get an understanding response, not certainly from 99% because polls persistently showed that the country was still enamoured of the neoliberal recipes that were poisoning them.

The country is not evenly divided regarding “Big Government,” “Taxes,” “the national debt,” “socialism,” “Education Reform,” “Terrorism,” “Moral Hazard,” “Affirmative Action,” “the EU,” “Welfare,” “Illegal aliens,” "Public Anything," "Penal rehabilitation and education," "The Death Tax," "All politicians and all politics are equally corrupt," "and many more. The preponderance of Americans, whether liberal or neoliberal, take an “Against/Don’t like” position on these issues. Congressional "gridlock"does not emerge because Americans are evenly divided on these issues but because Congress yet displays lingering vestiges of liberal and leftist values. Think of it as a lingering but fast disappearing preference for print over digital, of house phones over cell phones, of pensions over 401Ks, of "working class heroes" over Wall Street "players," of "unions" over "right-to-work," of egalitarianism over "Winners and Losers," of middle class optimism over middle class anomie. And so on.While much of a liberal valence in the American mass psyche is comparable to extinguishing embers in the fireplace, the neoliberal valence is powerfully magnetic and continues to be so.

The fading and diminishment of liberal power within the American cultural psyche is not the product of an ideological war or any war of rationalities but rather the result of its loss of affective power, of psychic mana, of narrative grasp, of being able to launch an offensive as needed. Being "equal" is replaced by being better; being a "neighbor" is replaced by being in a "network" to improve your position; "support groups" replace society; philanthropy and foundations replace government; online social networking privatize the social. The American Dream is reduced to the dimensions of the "bottom line" of profit, a stochastic system of market ups and downs.

Vestiges of middle class well-being and mobility, of a cohering image remain also with us. As OWS has shown, real material, objective, economic conditions have pushed the middle class to the wall and the working class to their knees. The analogy apt here is that of a man in a dark closet being punched over and over again but unable to see who’s doing the punching. In fact, the victim is shouting for help but he’s shouting to his assailant to help him. Of course, within a neoliberal view of things the only “victims” around are those who make themselves victims. They need to will to be Winners.

The beliefs that need to be re-visited and reexamined very critically are precisely those which have already been deeply implanted within the American mass psyche. Although everyone but the top 20% is being hammered economically and therefore, in time, politically, any retaliatory response is stopped dead in its tracks because within the American mass psyche effective retaliation is always narrated in neoliberal ways. In other words, in spite of real existing conditions, the middle class will support the assault neoliberalism makes against them. This is irrational of course but on the level of the cultural imaginary, it is imagined and felt to be rational.

President Obama had only to tackle the problem of a privatized health care system that was strangling the country and at the same time not making Americans healthier and he was at once labeled a socialist. This would make any pragmatist step back because nothing that works to everyone’s benefit can result from such immediate and powerful opposition. He said nothing on behalf of a public option because the conciliations and compromises he had already proposed right out of the chute had been shot down. Anything proposed with the word "public" in it is targeted for an immediate surgical strike within the American mass psyche.

OWS has picked up on this and has tried to avoid saying anything , choosing to play mostly the “show” part of “show and tell.” The neoliberal response to them has gradually managed to set them up within the American cultural imaginary in ways in which the Emperor without clothes that OWS points to appears clothed. There is then no venality to the empire of predatory capitalism and no attack upon it called for. In our psychic drama, the story of individual drive and competitiveness, of “just do it!” gives only one character and one role to OWS: these are victims of choices they themselves have made whining instead of getting a job and helping themselves.

There is a great deal that we cannot see clearly because our lens of seeing is already clouded by a neoliberal story. We do not consider mutual cooperation as a viable alternative to a zero-sum competitiveness. A “public option” had the lifespan of a mayfly in the recent health care debate. A “steady-state” economy argument goes nowhere confronted by a hunger for an every-expanding economy, regardless of whether the planet cannot sustain such expansion. There is no longer a character or a script of a mise en scene within our psychomachia that can stage any socialist challenge in any way not already mocked, demonized or aborted.

Within our cultural psychic battle, liberals, cannot escape susceptibilty to the attachments of what a OWS invigorated President Obama has called a “social Darwinism,” a competitiveness in which someone winning necessitates someone losing. The more we are thrilled – both established winners and struggling losers -- by the idea of a competitive arena, the less we are drawn to any socialist critique of capitalism. We cannot bond with the unfortunate and their misfortunes as readily as we can with the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Liberals, therefore, do not shun any leftist critique of capitalism solely because the neoliberals own the discourse.

The wealthy on both sides of the political aisle join in an affiliation that transcends political ideology.

Liberal “Winners,” like conservative “Winners,” have much in common in our psychomachia, wealth shaping a similar lens through which people and issues attract or distance. What we have seen in our politics is a narrowing of overwhelming determining economic issues to identity and cultural politics and to issues which have upper middle class concern but miniscule, when compared with economic concerns, of the working class “underclass.”

This trend, sponsored by both liberals and conservatives but mostly liberals, has been dramatically interrupted by the Occupy Wall Street movement. At first, the drama went on unheeded by the media. The first response of the Murdoch empire was to ignore OWS, knowing that without representation the reality of what was going on would be confined to those on the scene. Only when the scene began to resemble protesters and police in Tahrir Square and when celebrities like Michael Moore showed up in support did the media respond. Our society that has become used to looking away from those “liberated” from work to welfare, or from bodies returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, or from those at Katrina who didn’t have SUVs to leave, or, most generally, from a bottom 40% of the population which is not even addressed in national elections.

We could call this a monumental cultural psychic repression, a repression of not only the plight of the Many but also what relief could be offered. OWS is pointing to a problem that is not a problem for Wall Street and not a problem neoliberal legislators want to do anything about. They don’t because according to their ideology only the invisible hand of the market is allowed to make “corrections” and that ideology itself is what OWS is protesting.

OWS has returned attention to a foundational economic disaster: democracy has become plutocracy. Seeking to escape the automatic rejection of any anti-capitalist discourse, OWS has traded discourse for presence by which I mean that they are bringing to presence an irrefutable wealth gap and pointing to that as a cause of the present misfortunes of a 99% they presume they are representing. Whether this approach can survive the intensity of our psychomachia remains to be seen.

Session Two will explore some of the issues in which wealthy liberals and neoliberals join hand in hand.

Joseph Natoli'sOccupying Here & Now: The New Class Warfare is available on Amazon's Kindle.