It is a very good question that Medea Benjamin and Nicolas J.S. Davies pose in their recent Countercurrents article – “Why aren’t Americans rising up like the people of Chile and Lebanon?” It is a good question and they give several very good answers to it; answers the people of America and the people of the world need to hear in order to truly understand American life. In fact, I thought the article so informative and so worthy that I copied parts of it to hand out to the Russians who come to hear my biweekly lectures at the American Cultural Center in Moscow. (Which, since Russia threw out most of the American diplomatic representatives last year, is no longer run by Americans but rather by the Russian Ministry of Culture.) I had them read it aloud in class and when they were done, they were stunned silent by its message.
Yet for the great value of the truth it presents, the article is flawed in that it is undialectical in two respects. First, that in casting out its net to capture the relations responsible for the people’s failure to rise up against their oppression, they have not cast it wide enough. Yes, what they say is true, capitalist ideology distorts reality, making life under capitalism seem the opposite of what it is: full of opportunity and freedom rather than full of oppression and exploitation. And yes, as Noam Chomsky pointed out, Americans are distracted by a variety of entertainments from sports through video games so that they do not pay attention to the world around them and so passively bestow consent. However, in focusing on the ideological they have ignored other relations which impact the behavior of the people such as the surveillance state and its ever-present threat of violence. They have also ignored the fact that vast numbers of the American people are drugged into oblivious submission.
In addition to the ideology of Capitalism, I believe another important factor in responsible for the passivity of the American population is that they are heavily drugged into submission, by both legal and illegal drugs. Giant pharmaceutical corporations compete with one another to bring forth yet another drug to combat the depression, the mania, the anxiety, the compulsions, the inertia, the desperation, that life under pure capitalism in an impure and polluted world evokes in human beings. While it is true the United States for many years has waged a “War on Drugs”, it has proven to be a lost cause. This war, directed exclusively at illegal drugs, has not only allowed but encouraged “legal
drugs” to proliferate. In fact, the division between legal and illegal drugs has given the pharmaceutical companies de facto monopolies over the drugs people take.
In a nation in which there is no limit as to how much can be charged for “medications”, there is huge money being made keeping the American people under control and functioning.
The legalization of marijuana, hailed by so many as a blessing to society, is no such thing. Yes, fewer young people of color will find themselves in prisons and so “social justice” will seem to be served. But in truth, the legalization of marijuana, like the legalization of alcohol, does more harm to society than good, although there may be a modicum of mercy in numbing the pain and suffering of tormented people. If, as Marx understood, religion is the opium of the masses, we must understand that the opposite is also true, opium is the religion of the masses. Increasingly, in the name of liberal democratic freedom, the state supports the free enjoyment of both, although the drugs are not free, and so reap huge profits for capitalist corporations. Huge profits also accrue to those private “medical” institutions whose function is to wean people off their addictions to drugs and alcohol. Moreover, the states that have already legalized marijuana, are witnessing a huge jump in taxes. As in the case of religion, so too in the case of providing actual drugs to people, there is a great deal of money to be made from making people feel better, happier and more accepting of the conditions of their existence.
Second, the authors do not treat the current passivity as historically specific and thus it appears as historically general – as something that has always been. However, there have been many instances, dating back to the very founding of the nation, in which either specific groups within society or individuals in general have raged and rebelled against the government. These range from Shay’s rebellion in 1886 -87 when people rose up against austerity measures and went up against a privately formed militia, to the revolt and resistance of particular groups who were oppressed because they were members of that group such as slave rebellions, and Mexican and Indian rebellions. There were of course, numerous workers actions taken up both against corporations and the government who supported the owners. There were as well tax rebellions and yes, white supremist rebellions conducted by organizations such as the White League. There was the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, and the gay rights movement, the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War. Most recently we have witnessed the Black Rights Matter Movement, in response to racist police brutality, and the Occupy Wall Street movement, against the capital of the capitaliststate itself. In almost each instance, the police, the army, the national guard or private militias such as the Pinkertons, hired by the owners of companies themselves, were called upon to suppress the people. Thus, there was the open slaughter of ten students at Kent State, and of the Black Panthers as they slept. Then as now, there has been the spying upon and infiltration of labor, antiwar, and left-wing organizations by both privately hired saboteurs and agent provocateurs, even as there is today the broad-spectrum surveillance of the people by the state. So, the suppression of the American people has been directly supported by the powers of a Capitalistate which is mighty , all seeing and all knowing even as it seeks to operate in secret.
However, just as we can trace the decline of the condition of the working class to the destruction by a variety of means of organized labor in America, I believe we can draw a parallel between the point at which the drugging of America peaks, when it grows and spreads from ghettos where people of color live to the suburban and rural white communities, and rural states such as Vermont and Indiana, and a decline in the overt resistance of the American people. The great rebellions of the people during the fifties, sixties and seventies were paralleled by the spread of drugs amongst them. By 1960, crime, driven by the use of drugs, had become acknowledge as a major problem in America:
“In the early 1960s, a presidential commission stated: ‘The concern and the distress of the American people over the national problem of drug abuse is expressed every day in the newspapers, the magazines, scientific journals, public forums and in the home. It is a serious and many-faceted problem’ (President’s Advisory Commission on Narcotics and Drug Abuse, 1963:1). In 1971, President Nixon called drugs, especially heroin, America’s public enemy number one. The 1980s saw the emergence of cocaine, particularly crack cocaine, as a new focus of concern. After President George Bush’s televised address in September 1989 (his first as President) on a national drug control strategy, 64 percent of respondents to a New York Times-CBS poll rated drugs as the nation’s number one problem (New York Times, 1990)., https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK234579/
I would posit, without any direct statistical proof, that the drugging of the American people, grew side by side with the decline in their standards of living and conditions of labor. I would argue that as Americans continue to feel and experience the degradations of their existence, so too have they increasingly turned to drugs for respite and so too, have drugs been made available to them. Drugs that ever increasingly come under the control of the government and benefit capitalist corporations even as they increase the tax base of individual states.
If the zeal for rebellion is gone from the people of America, and I am not sure it is, it is primarily because they have been drugged into oblivion at the wish and whim of the Capitalistate.
In all fairness, the dialectical flaws in Benjamin and Davies Marxist analysis, namely that in focusing on ideology they do not focus on non-ideological and actual conditions which render the people of America passive, combined with their failure to place the resistance or lack thereof of the people in the dimension of time and history, flow from the fact that the authors are constrained by the word limit imposed on the length of the article. In truth, they would have needed to write a book in order to have avoided their methodological flaws. Perhaps they will; that would be wonderful. Yet and still, the flaws need to be corrected in order to more perfectly understand the American people and their current passivity in the face of their brutal subjugation.
Mary Metzger is a 74 year old semi retired teacher. She did her undergraduate work at S.U.N.Y. Old Westbury and her graduate work In Dialectics under Bertell Ollman at New York University. She has taught numerous subjects, from Public Sector Labor Relations to Philosophy of Science, to many different levels of students from the very young to Ph.D. candidates, in many different institutions and countries from Afghanistan to Russia. She has been living in Russia for the past 12 years where she focuses on research in the Philosophy of Science and History of the Dialectic, and writes primarily for Countercurrents. She is the mother of three, the grandmother of five, and the great grandmother of two.