The Dead Hand of the Present: Is a Future Possible?

The pressing question one faces in trying to make sense of the collapsing framework of the American system is how to capture the full crisis afflicting its way of life. Given the signs everywhere of a society in free fall, is there a way to address our deepest fears and still leave a space for optimism and social activism?

Just this past week, economist Paul Krugman of the New York Times took a bold step forward: moving beyond his usual effort to tease out good news from mixed fiscal signals and suggest potential pathways to economic recovery and reform, Krugman acknowledged that deeper and less tractable forces are at work. Admitting the limitations of the social science approach, his essay candidly asserts regarding present political agendas that "We've gone beyond bad economic doctrine. We've even gone beyond selfishness and special interests."

While concerned that, in his words, "I don't fully understand" what such an inquiry would entail, Krugman insists that a viable explanation must account for the present "state of mind." He even resorts to the archaism of "the soul" as he turns to the deeper psychic processes driving American culture today.

Why have we up to now resisted this demanding examination of our "state of mind," our unacknowledged priorities and presuppositions? Aren't we warned off for fear of what we would discover: that the basic structures and incentives of American society are no longer life supporting? We suspect we are entangled day to day in behaviors that methodically drain the will to thrive out of us, and out of our young who are being habituated to carry on as depleted and lifeless spirits.

One current novel, Taipei by Tao Lin, captures the everyday experience of the broken subjects in this broken world. The protagonist Paul, a young writer, does not exactly want to die. Yet in his utter disconnect from context, relations and family, his past and present, not only himself (whatever that might be) but even his thoughts and feelings which refuse to be formed, he also cannot, though he continually tries, muster any reasons to live either. He dimly senses that this frame of mind, blunted by incessant drug use and a cult of randomness, was once called self-destructive, but such a term no longer seems to apply for it falsely presumes something valuable that might be lost.

We are blinded from seeing this process of spiritual desiccation by the built-in demands of the system to unceasingly mobilize and focus our energies in the chase for survival and status. So absorbed in our own pursuits, we can each convince ourselves that we are pursuing a viable life plan. We can further conclude by extension that we like everyone else (precisely!) are participating in a system that promotes the effective mobilization of resources and achievement. That is, until we peel away the rose colored rationalizations and look around. Krugman recognizes this darker level, prophetically entitling his confessional "Hunger Games, U.S.A" after the recent dystopian film. Under ever more hyper-competitive conditions, with few (largely privileged and immensely powerful) winners and endless legions of losers and near-losers, all the focus in the world will not alter our likely outcome as road kill for the power mad with their lock on the system.

Subjecting our children to relentless high stakes competition and testing, the primary goal is to instill discipline and submission, so that they can if they are lucky go to college where they will incur indebtedness that will chain them to the company store for life, with the 'promise' of professions and job ladders that are increasingly out of reach, closed, unavailable. For those who dare refuse to what Lin calls "irreversibly, untraceably dissolve" into depression and zombified pixels on a screen, into hipsterism and "how may I help you's," there are motivational drugs to simulate motivation without its sense of purpose. The payoff is work as an indentured servant without protection in the corporate matrix so that one can dribble away the remaining free time in front of increasingly wide-screen tv's to catch the commodified circus as it grows stale.

George Packer, in a comprehensive new book on the crumbling of American institutions and values, calls this process The Unwinding, the unraveling of the American soul. Giving up, succumbing to the desperate and dehumanizing cannibalization of human flourishing, going through the motions with indifference, that is what it looks like from a distance. Pushing through our I-padded world sustained by the tabloid distractions of celebrities, lottery-winners, and internet entrepreneurs, it becomes clear, morbidly apparent, that we are running along a giant and rigged maze, whose intent is to disarm, demoralize and morally desensitize, and ultimately detach us from the will to live meaningfully.

How can we extend a helping hand or even sympathetic eye to abandoned urban schoolchildren, helpless immigrants, outsourced union members, courageous whistleblowers facing the full wrath of the government apparatus, victims of American expansionism and greed, our own neighbors, or even ourselves, however, when there is no brake on the treadmill? Physical death is incidental to the steady erosion of our belief that we can act to produce a more just and humanized world and rise to our better selves within it.

In this wasteland of the soul, where are the advocates of life, of renewal and change? Where are those who might identify how the system itself like Melville's emblematic ship Pequod is caught in a downward spiral and in turn help us not to be sucked into the vortex? They are, so many around us, hunkering down, tightening their seatbelts for the rough patch, hoping that because they have no larger understanding there is none that is needed. I recently observed as Packer, responding to questions on the new book, admitted that he was unclear why what he had portrayed was happening but wished it wasn't. I saw how sympathetic observers promoting their new book on Occupy explained that, able to account neither for the emergence nor the dynamic of this most promising new development in years, Occupy was best understood as spectacle. What these analysts -- and the larger national culture -- share is an inability to respond to the deathly pall that has taken over the American way of life.

And yet, it is clearer than ever that new ways of living are emerging especially among the young that could serve as life rafts on our journey to new social and communal forms. Everywhere, from the continuing Occupy initiatives including those I have worked with to transgressive and transformative educational organizing and alliances to new projects in local economic development and self-financing, community empowerment and sustainability, and collective living, those not yet cemented in place are voting with their feet and with their hearts to embrace -- and to cultivate -- emerging possibilities.

As the forces of dissipation enact their own demise, despite however many victims like Paul (and there will be many) will be exacted by a system demanding them, the forces of renewal and change shall prevail. The Old Testament writers understood, and put their understanding in such myths as Noah and Moses, that light and life stand out most boldly and tellingly against a background of darkness. Amid those forces now being assembled, young people everywhere are regaining the power of sight. What they do not yet fully grasp is how deeply they are needed.