Nihilism in America
excerpted from the book
Winning the Fight Against Imperialism
by Cornell West
Penguin Books, 2004, paper
The rise of an ugly imperialism has been aided by an unholy alliance
of the plutocratic elites and the Christian Right, and also by
a massive disaffection of so many voters who see too little difference
between two corrupted parties ...
When Bush smiles after his carefully scripted press conferences
of little substance, we do not know whether he is laughing at
us or getting back at us as we laugh at him-as the press meanwhile
hurries to concoct a story out of his clichés and shibboleths.
[The] glorification of the market has led to a callous corporate-dominated
political economy in which business leaders (their wealth and
power) are to be worshipped-even despite the recent scandals-and
the most powerful corporations are delegated magical powers of
salvation rather than relegated to democratic scrutiny concerning
both the ethics of their business practices and their treatment
of workers. This largely unexamined and unquestioned dogma that
supports the policies of both Democrats and Republicans in the
United States-and those of most political parties in other parts
of the world-is a major threat to the quality of democratic life
and the well-being of most peoples across the globe.
[The] illicit marriage of corporate and political elites-so blatant
and flagrant in our time-not only undermines the trust of informed
citizens in those who rule over them. It also promotes the pervasive
sleepwalking of the populace, who see that the false prophets
are handsomely rewarded with money, status, and access to more
[The aggressive militarism] of U.S. foreign policy goes far beyond
our former doctrine of preventive war. It green-lights political
elites to sacrifice U.S. soldiers-who are disproportionately working
class and youth of color-in adventurous crusades.
How ironic that 9/11-a vicious attack on innocent civilians by
gangsters-becomes the historic occasion for the full-scale gangsterization
... the prevailing conservative culture has made the Left-progressives
and liberals-internal enemies. They are considered out of step
with the drumbeat of patriots, who defer to the imperial aims,
free-market policies, cultural conservative views, and personal
pieties of the Bush administration.
The Jewish invention of the prophetic commitment to justice-also
central to both Christianity and Islam-is one of the great moral
moments in human history. This was the commitment to justice of
an oppressed people. It set in motion a prophetic tradition based
on the belief that God had imparted this love of justice because
God is first and foremost a lover of justice. The Judaic prophetic
commitment to justice is therefore predicated on the divine love
of justice. Israel - hated and enslaved people in the most powerful
empire of its day (that of Egypt's pharaohs) - is chosen by God
because of God's love of justice. And the admonition against inhumane
injustice is central to the message of the prophetic: "He
who oppresses a poor man insults his maker / He who is kind to
the needy honors him" (Proverbs 14:31). Prophetic witness
consists of human acts of justice and kindness that attend to
the unjust sources of human hurt and misery. Prophetic witness
calls attention to the causes of unjustified suffering and unnecessary
social misery. It highlights personal and institutional evil,
including especially the evil of being indifferent to personal
and institutional evil.
Globalization is inescapable-the question is whether it will be
a democratic globalization or a U.S.-led corporate globalization
(with thin democratic rhetoric).
The perception of pervasive corruption at the top seems to many
to justify the unprincipled quest to succeed at any cost in their
own lives, and the widespread cheating in our culture reflects
this sad truth. The oppressive effect of the prevailing market
moralities leads to a form of sleepwalking from womb to tomb,
with the majority of citizens content to focus on private careers
and be distracted with stimulating amusements. They have given
up any real hope of shaping the collective destiny of the nation.
Sour cynicism, political apathy, and cultural escapism become
the pervasive options.
The public has good cause for disillusionment
with the American democratic system. The saturation of market
forces and market moralities has indeed corrupted our system all
the way up. Our leadership elite have themselves lost faith in
the efficacy of adhering to democratic principles in the face
of the overwhelming power of those market forces. They are caught
up in the corrupting influences of market morality. Our politicians
have sacrificed their principles on the altar of special interests;
our corporate leaders have sacrificed their integrity on the altar
of profits; and our media watchdogs have sacrificed the voice
of dissent on the altar of audience competition.
Our leadership elite may still want to
believe in democratic principles-they certainly profess that they
do-but in practice they have shown themselves all too willing
to violate those principles in order to gain or retain power.
The flip side of the nihilism of despair is this nihilism of the
unprincipled abuse of power. When the lack of belief in the power
of principles prevails, the void is filled by the will to power
of the market, by the drive to succeed at the cost of others rather
than the drive to decency and integrity. In the poverty-stricken
inner cities, this nihilism leads to street gangsterism, and in
the halls of elite power it leads to elite gangsterism ...
The elites in the Democratic Party-especially in the Senate and
the House-are not only liberal and centrist supporters of social
equality and individual freedoms; more pointedly they are paternalistic
nihilists who have become ineffectual by having bought into the
corruptions of the power-hungry system. Though they may wish that
the system could be made to serve more truly democratic purposes,
they have succumbed to the belief that a more radical fight for
a truer democracy, battling against the corruption of elites,
is largely futile. So they've joined the game in the delusional
belief that at least they are doing so in the better interests
of the public.
... the present Democratic Party has lost its footing in terms
of its foundational mission to fight the plutocracy. Corporate
elites in the American empire have always cast a dark shadow over
the operations of power in American government. And although these
elites are mighty, they are not almighty. The Democratic Party
leaders seem to have lost the conviction that corporate elites
can be forced to make concessions under the pressure of organized
democratic forces. But our history has shown they can be forced.
The key reason women could not vote until 1920, indigenous peoples
until 1924, and most blacks until 1964 was that they could not
bring organized democratic pressures to bear in order to limit
the power of wealthy white male citizens. Yet, when they marshaled
that organized force, they got the vote.
For most of the history of the American empire, government has
been a tool for preserving and furthering the power and might
of white male corporate elites ...
The Democratic Party elites are too often unwilling to tell the]
American people just how connected they and their Republican colleagues
are to powerful corporations and influential lobbyists. Their
caving in to Bush's Iraq war, and their support for the loosening
of regulations on corporations that led to the recent wave of
scandals, are two blatant examples. In these legislative votes,
most Democrats failed to follow their conscience, following instead
the polls and their reelection strategies. Unlike their idol,
Bill Clinton-a masterful neoliberal communicator who subordinated
his conscience to the exigencies of reelection strategies, but
was able to conceal his opportunism with his charisma-the vast
majority of Democratic Party elites are rendered impotent by their
timidity and paralyzed by their cupidity (their courting of corporate
donors). Their unprincipled compromises reinforce the idea that
corporate influence and lobbyists' clout run the U.S. government.
While an essential mission of the news organizations in a democracy
should be to expose the lies and manipulations of our political
and economic leaders-and surely many media watchdogs devote themselves
to that task-too much of what passes for news today is really
a form of entertainment. So many shows follow a crude formula
for providing titillating coverage that masks itself as news.
Those who are purveyors of this bastardized form of reporting
are sentimental nihilists, willing to sidestep or even bludgeon
the truth or unpleasant and unpopular facts and stories, in order
to provide an emotionally satisfying show. This is the dominance
of sentiment over truth telling in order to build up market share.
Our market- driven media have be come much too constrained in
the coverage of unpleasant truths, much too preoccupied with the
concerns and views of middle-class and upper-class white people,
and much too beholden to the political persuasions of the media
Hence we have witnessed the breakdown
in media ethics-going after "good" stories even if the
truth has to be stretched or outright fabrications are condoned.
The overwhelming dominance of market-driven pressures has also
led to the outburst of blatantly partisan punditry. And even the
supposed do-gooders in the media often limit the depth of their
analysis and the range of their truth telling so as not to offend
advertisers and mainstream opinion.
Though our cultural mythology has promoted the notion of "fair
and balanced" coverage and impartiality, our news organizations
have always been more partisanly political than the ideal and
have always been subject to market pressures. Yet we now have
a media whose vulgar partisanship is corrupting our public life.
Those who engage in biased reporting reinforce the deep polarization
and balkanization of the citizenry and contribute much to the
decline of public trust in meaningful political conversation.
The relentless pursuit of power among the media elite-in the form
of ratings and market share-is indulged in with little regard
for the consequences for our democracy.
[The} sad display of highly ambitious yet too often docile and
deferential newspeople preoccupied with a market bottom line has
not been lost on the public and has contributed to the widespread
public apathy about our politics. Yet the hard-hitting, deeply
probing periodicals and shows that do exist struggle for market
share because the allure of the entertainment offered by the mass-appeal
versions is so strong. Most significantly, the obsessive touting
of dubious statistics and sound bites by mainstream pundits points
citizens away from a true reckoning with the institutional causes
of social misery.
Democracy depends, in large part, on a
free and frank press willing to speak painful truths to the public
about our society, including the fact of their own complicity
in superficiality and simplistic reportage. There can be no democratic
paideia-the critical cultivation of an active citizenry-without
democratic parrhesia-a bold and courageous press willing to speak
against the misinformation and mendacities of elites. Democracy
matters are in peril when the so-called free press lacks the autonomy
or courage to inspire democratic energies.
Free-market fundamentalism has for so long been the precondition
of American democracy that we have rendered it sacred - an unexamined
fetish that we worship.
The American democratic experiment is unique in human history
not because we are God's chosen people to lead the world, nor
because we are always a force for good in the world, but because
of our refusal to acknowledge the deeply racist and imperial roots
of our democratic project. We are exceptional because of our denial
of the antidemocratic foundation stones of American democracy.
No other democratic nation revels so blatantly in such self-deceptive
innocence, such self-paralyzing reluctance to confront the nightside
of its own history. This sentimental flight from history-or adolescent
escape from painful truths about ourselves-means that even as
we grow old, grow big, and grow powerful, we have yet to grow
up. To confront the role of race and empire is to grapple with
what we would like to avoid, but we avoid that confrontation at
the risk of our democratic maturation.
Benjamin Franklin, 1787 in his closing speech at the Constitutional
I agree to this constitution with all
its faults, if they are such: because I think a general government
necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what
may be a blessing to the people if well-administered," and
I believe farther that this [government] is likely to be well
administered for a Course of Years and can only end in Despotism
as other forms have done before it, when the People shall become
so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of
The most painful truth in the making of America-a truth that shatters
all pretensions to innocence and undercuts all efforts of denial-is
that the enslavement of Africans and the imperial expansion over
indigenous peoples and their lands were undeniable preconditions
for the possibility of American democracy. There could be no such
thing as an experiment in American democracy without these racist
and imperial foundations. It is no accident that from the nation's
founding (1789) to the Civil War (1861) the vast majority of Supreme
Court justices-the highest rule of law in the land-were slaveholders
and imperial expansionists. And for forty-nine of these seventy-two
years, the presidency of the United States was held by slaveholders
and imperial expansionists. And the only ones reelected president
were slaveholders and imperial expansionists.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835
I do not imagine that the white and black
races will ever live in any country upon an equal footing. But
I believe the difficulty to be still greater in the United States
than elsewhere. An isolated individual may surmount the prejudices
of religion, of his country, or of his race, and if this individual
is a king he may effect surprising changes in society; but a whole
people cannot rise, as it were, above itself. A despot who should
subject the Americans and their former slaves to the same yoke,
might perhaps succeed in commingling their races; but as long
as the American democracy remains at the head of affairs, no one
will undertake so difficult a task; and it maybe foreseen that
the freer the white population of the United States becomes, the
more isolated will it remain ....
If ever America undergoes great revolutions,
they will be brought about by the presence of the black race on
the soil of the United States,-that is to say, they will owe their
origin, not to the equality, but to the inequality, of conditions.
... the historical alliance of the American and Soviet empires
... defeated the fascist forces on the globe at a cost of fifty
million dead, including six million Jews in Nazi concentration
camps along with Gypsies, Communists, gays, and lesbians. The
indescribable courage of the U.S. Jim Crow armed forces (365,000
dead) and the incredible gallantry of the Soviet army (twenty
million Russian dead) gave the world another chance for democracy
We should not be surprised when we get beneath the empty clichés
and routine shibboleths so often uttered by American officials
to discover that the obsession with power and might is so prevalent.
The U.S. military budget accounts for over 40 percent of the world's
total military spending. It is six times the size of the military
spending of the number two nation (Russia) and more than that
of the next twenty-three nations combined. America is the greatest
nuclear power (nine thousand nuclear warheads) and has over 650
military facilities with 1.45 million soldiers in 132 countries
(on every continent except Antarctica).
The United States is the world's biggest debtor nation because
foreign investors hold their savings and reserves in dollars for
security. American trade and budget deficits as well as American
consumer debts are sustained by this foreign investment.
... only 0.2 percent of the total gross national product of the
United States goes to foreign aid-more than 50 percent of it to
Israel and Egypt. The poorest nations, especially in Africa, receive
hardly a drop in the bucket.
... the largely U.S.-financed United Nations is disproportionately
influenced by U.S. interests-with its symbolic veto power in the
Security Council (along with Russia, China, Britain, and France).