On May 10, 2019, Damage Magazine held a launch event in New York City. Amber A’Lee Frost and Bob Hullot-Kentor were invited to speak on the topic “What Does America Believe?” Bob Hullot-Kentor was unable to attend due to illness, and Damage editor Benjamin Fong gave a talk in his place. The talks were followed by a discussion moderated by Jeremy Cohan. What follows is an edited transcript of Amber A’Lee Frost’s talk.
I think first it makes sense to define the terms of tonight’s prompt, “What does America believe?” It’s a topic I absolutely love, partially because at first glance, this question appears so broad as to be somewhat naive. It reminded me of the recent play, “What the Constitution Means to Me,” written and performed by this very scrappy, liberal Lisa Simpson of a woman, who paid for her college tuition by competing in Speech and Debate contests held at small-town American Legions. Obviously speakers are graded on poise, enthusiasm and jingoism, as well as their argumentation and oratory skills. It was a very sweet and sincere play, so of course I hated it, and you will be experiencing nothing of the sort here.
To start, it helps to clarify two points of distinction: 1) We’re talking about what America believes, rather than what Americans believe. That is, this is not intended to be a generalization about the beliefs of a large mass of people known as “Americans” (although as a side note I think generalization has been unfairly stigmatized as of late, and we would all do well to be less averse to pattern recognition as a practice, and instead attempt to analyze the material conditions that might produce such patterns). Again though, I’m talking about America, both as an abstraction and a nation-state, a project which is premised on the possession of at least a few guiding “beliefs,” which brings me to the second point. 2) We are discussing beliefs, rather than ideology. My drive-by explanation of ideology has been to say that just as a fish doesn’t know it’s in water, we are not conscious of ideology, and it is unlike belief in that we are able take it for granted. I also like to cite a Herzog film, Into the Inferno, as an example. There is a scene in which Herzog’s narrator, a British volcanologist, interviews the chief of a tribe from the volcanic nation of Vanuatu. The Brit asks the native if there are ghosts in the volcano, to which the chief slightly corrects him, saying, “we believe there are ghosts in the volcano.” This happens (I believe) twice more, with the chief saying “we believe…” in response to a question of reality. The well-meaning British volcanologist (as per good English manners), would never ask the chief if he “believes” there are ghosts in the volcano, he just asks him if there are ghosts in the volcano. He frames his question this way both because he feels it would be impolite for a foreign guest to imply skepticism of ghosts in the volcano, but also because he takes for granted that the indigenous religion is “primitive,” and hence ideological, rather than 1) belief-based, and 2) conscious of its own subjectivity. The true ideology here is not that of the chief but of the volcanologist, who has defined traditional societies as rigidly ideological, and therefore lacking the capacity for conscious belief. (I also have a whole long-winded thing about American Protestantism being an attempt to transform belief into ideology, an impossible project which can produce literal psychosis, but I’m not drunk enough to bore you with that here and now, lucky you.)
So that being said…
The only thing I can say for sure has remained consistent over the course of our history is that America believes in the virtue of aspiration, and America believes itself to be an aspirational project, and therefore, ostensibly, virtuous by virtue of its aspirationalism. But how has this belief played out over the course of American history, and what does it mean for us today?
A short history of aspiration
I would argue there are three distinct chapters to America so far. First, we had the frontier, where a breakaway—or a “start-up” nation if you will—offered a lot of high-risk, allegedly high-reward opportunities. The second chapter of America was formed by negation, most notably in our opposition to socialism: We knew what we believed because we knew who we were, and we knew who we were because we knew who we weren’t—namely, communists. But since the Cold War ended, there are no real communist projects of any size to be threatening to American belief, no great big Other to question the methods of our aspirational ethos. This marks the third chapter of America, the one in which we currently reside. It is difficult to make sense of.
Recently, I went to a mysteriously-funded museum that popped up overnight in Manhattan. The KGB Spy Museum promised to expose the horrors of communism, and no doubt garnered some interest from our national hysteria over allegations of Russian collusion. From my column in The Baffler, “All Tomorrow’s Parties”:
Watching Rachel Maddow babble and hiss about Russians cutting your gas lines, one might come to the conclusion she’s merely a xenophobic paranoiac—which she indeed is. But when you catch all the anachronistic hammer and sickle iconography that so often accompanies our recent Russophobia revival, it’s clear that we’re not merely panicking, we’re mourning, and that we’re nostalgic for a worthy opponent. We miss the Soviets. Sure we make eyes at China, (who yes, looks stunning in red), but it’s just not the same. We are all the poorer for the loss of the communist states. The whole world is.
Our greatest enemy is dead, and we’re stricken with unresolved grief. Why else would we be thrashing and wailing over a long-gone foe? Because she was the one who kept us sharp, the one who kept us on our toes, the one who held us accountable.
After the End of History, America was briefly very celebratory, high off our own triumphalism after the fall of the USSR and other socialist projects. But neoliberalism and capitalism are currently suffering a crisis of credibility among the American people, and we’re finding that without sizeable institutions representing competing ideologies—like communism—we’re not quite sure who we are or what we believe anymore—sort of a post-Cold War identity crisis.
We’ve tried to fill that void with other projects, but nothing sticks. The War On Terror promised a new nemesis, but “stateless enemies” can’t possibly measure up to a rival like the Big Red Menace. And no one finds Silicon Valley techno-utopianism inspiring (except for possibly actual psychopaths).
So where does all of that belief in aspiration go?
Historically, the left has charged itself with shaping aspiration toward the construction of egalitarian utopian political projects, so if you are a socialist, this third chapter of America presents a huge potential opportunity. I question whether or not we have a “left” that is focused enough for such a task. (For the record, I agree with Professor Adolph Reed Jr. that “There is no Left to speak of in the United States.” I use “left” here in quotations as he does, to refer to a group of people who self-identify as leftists, and might spend an inordinate and possibly unjustified amount of time considering ideas which fall under the purview of “leftism.”)
Let’s look at a couple of books that have come out very recently here at Verso. Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism imagines a hyper-futuristic post-scarcity world where automation has eliminated almost all work and we receive a glut of leisure time to do… something. Nevermind the historical reality that technology has been a double-edged sword for the lower classes since at least the industrial revolution—it seems strange to me that this call to leisure is coming out at a time when people are demanding a jobs program and full employment.
You’ve also got Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family by Sophie Lewis. Like Bastani, she takes the anti-work line but extends it to pregnancy. She writes: “‘Full surrogacy now,’ as I see it, is an expression of solidarity with the evolving desires of gestational workers, from the point of view of a struggle against work.” A significant jump from Marx’s call to abolish the family as an economic unit, Lewis seeks to abolish biological kinship entirely. Again, this is an odd intervention when American and European birth rates are in decline, and while poll after poll shows that these same American and European women are having fewer children (and pregnancies) than they desire.
There are interesting thought experiments in each book to be sure, but what does it mean when there is a left who conceives of a “utopia” that is indistinguishable from a dystopia in the eyes of most working-class people? While most people want romance and family and meaningful, rewarding work, leftists compare pregnancy to cancer and fantasize about a full technological takeover of the entire economy and our entire lives: futures that most people find very alienating, to say the least. Questioning humanity’s sentimentality toward the biological and the anatomical is intellectually compelling, but is there anything about that line of thinking that is inherently left? Anything that would be considered emancipatory by the masses?
Idealism not aspiration
The only conclusion I can come to is that the self-identified left has actually abandoned the utopian project in favor of idealism: instead of working for a world that represents the values of the people who live in it, the “left” imagines a new kind of people who might fit into the worlds they fantasize, or perhaps merely see as inevitable.
In this our third American chapter, characterized by diffuse and unfocused aspirational energy, we are presented with a choice: we can either retreat into idealism, or we can work to transform existing reality alongside the people for whom utopia might not be so Verso. When leftists dream about a better future populated by “better” people, or seek to distill the “correct” political program (rather than say, projects and institutions driven by class consciousness), they ignore the opportunities that the untapped aspirations of working people present. To put it bluntly, the “left” is simply no longer prepared to live in a society.
At the risk of sounding very “What the Constitution Means to Me,” I would suggest a return to the sort of Utopianism that more closely resembles the hopes and dreams of most working people. This is where I think Damage comes in. The social and cultural tendencies of the self-identified left are not entirely explicable via Marx, so I believe the time has come that we call on Freud for a little help. I’m not entirely sure how long this American identity crisis will last, but it might be a very narrow window of opportunity. The aspirational energy of America is up for grabs, and it’s ours to lose.
Amber A’Lee Frost is a writer and podcaster who has yet to escape Brooklyn, New York.