Indybay Regions North Coast Central Valley North Bay East Bay South Bay San Francisco Peninsula Santa Cruz IMC - Independent Media Center for the Monterey Bay Area North Coast Central Valley North Bay East Bay South Bay San Francisco Peninsula Santa Cruz IMC - Independent Media Center for the Monterey Bay Area California United States International Americas Haiti Iraq Palestine Afghanistan
From the Open-Publishing Calendar
From the Open-Publishing Newswire
Indybay Feature

The American Way of Life: Moments of a Negative Utopia

by Meinhard Creydt (mbatko [at]
"The US has sovereignly ignored condemnations of the Haage International Tribunal... US foreign policy and the economic and military power of the US represent a first obstacle for every emancipatory interest on this globe."
The American Way of Life

Moments of a Negative Utopia

By Meinhard Creydt

[This article is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

Criticism of the US distinguished from resentment or smooth-talking should be recalled when readiness increases to shunt all criticism of the US with the label `anti-Americanism’.

A first, ecologically plausible reserve toward the American way of life lies in the impossibility to generalize it globally. What is involved is the `empire as a way of life’ according to the American historian W.A. Williams or `the inability or unwillingness to live within its own means’ (Prokla 1989/3). The outward role of the US – in Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, Cuba – is well-known. The US has sovereignly ignored condemnations like the Haage International Tribunal (on account of financing and training terrorists and supporting terrorist strikes against Nicaragua). US foreign policy and the rage maintaining it through the economic and military power of the US represent a first obstacle for every emancipatory interest on this globe. In Steven King’s new novel `Duddits, Dreamcatcher’, the US is depicted as an enormous carcinoma that represses all different structures (cf. Barber 1999). Nothing essential can improve as long as nothing fundamentally changes in the power or policy of the US. This is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

The objection is already lodged that the population of the US cannot be equated with the political leadership. A minority urges a different policy in the US. “However the minority is a minority… The cause of the Americans is to prevent their mis-perception from the outside caused by US foreign policy through correcting this policy.” The anti-budgetary attitude in the US, the rejection of bureaucracy and state intervention, follows the motto “Keep the state out of our affairs and we will keep out of its affairs… Political energies, it seems, are absorbed in the democratically enriched private sphere. The consequence is that the so-called higher planes of policy, especially foreign policy, are left to the politicians.” “The recommendation of the base democratic way of life remains unconvincing for export” as long as “base democracy” fails in “job therapy”.

The US is “a society that makes a positive principle of collective organization out of insecurity. Enthusiastic for individualism and `self-help’, the US is the embodiment of the neo-Darwinian vision opposing the solidarian vision in all interests in the history of social movements” as Bourdieu (1999) described. For example, there is no legal health insurance in the US (except insurance for people over 65). “A long serious illness with a hospital stay can ruin a budget… The fear of sickness costs is one of the most oppressive anxieties of budgets in the middle class” (Scheuch 1992). The losers in the competition also hold to it and regard “will to action, readiness for risk, efficiency and mobility as basic conditions of a rightly understood `Americanism’ (Wasser 2000).

According to the 1997 OECD report on job perspectives, average working hours in the US in 1996 amounted to 1996 and in Germany 1578. The paid annual vacation in the US lasted two weeks and in Europe four to five weeks. “Within the OECD, the US is one of the countries with the lowest degree of union organization (22% in 1980, 16% in 1990, 14.9? in 1995 and 14.5% in 1996). As a result, the American labor market is one of the least regulated among the economically advanced nations… Nationwide regulation of wage levels and dismissals is minimal. Only a few regulated hurdles exist for dismissals. Hire and fire predominates. According to OECD statistics, the nationwide authority of collective wage agreements in the US fell from 26% to 18% between 1980 and 1990. In comparison collective wage agreements amounted to 95% in France, 92% in Germany and 82% in Italy… An increasing number of American workers depend on individualized, so-called freely structured working conditions” (Pallagrosi, 1996).

The privatization of public goods pushed again and again in Europe is already realized in the US. “The state has withdrawn from all economic projects, sold off public enterprises and transformed public goods like health, housing, security, education and culture into commercial goods and their users into customers or clients. The state pledges the `public services’ to the private sector and waived possibilities of intervention in the national economy. It has lost its power to equalize social chances and push back inequality (which now intensifies to an indescribable extent) and delegates social functions to subordinate public agencies (states, regions etc). All this happens in the name of the old liberal tradition of self-help (an inheritance of Calvinism that God helps those who help themselves) and the conservative enthusiasm for individual responsibility (unemployment or economic failure is first charged to individuals, not the social order). The withdrawal of the state is nowhere as manifest as in the area of culture where the domination of commerce spreads or the area of domestic policy with the police and imprisonment” (Bourdieu 1999). Citizens make one another legally responsible by claiming damages for their deficient well-being. Causation of real or alleged injuries is ascribed to individuals. “Two thirds of all lawyers in the whole world are Americans” (Vidal, 1998).

To US-Americans it is self-evident “that the benefits of a monopoly of force protecting freedom consists in supporting the successful in competition”. The underlying certainty is that victims are worthwhile for the `success of the successful’ since their success will ultimately lead to America’s success. No other criterion should be valid between the citizens other than "diligence in competition". Every distortion of competition through resistance by the `unfit' is opposed. "Exaggerated idealism of the law" is prohibited in cases where the success of illegality is validated. That the Mafia aside from southern Italy is at home in New York in the opposite pole in the spectrum of constitutional lifestyles cannot be an accident.” Where the public welfare coincides directly and without a bad conscience with the success of the diligent, the trifling elective participation is also not felt to be a problem. “Whoever is totally wrapped up in rivalry is rightly politicized and understands his efforts at his own success as the best form of the fulfillment of civic duties.”

Where promotion of competition and business is the pivot of public expenditures, US-Americans join “ardent love of the country with far-reaching disinterest in their state”. It is “no contradiction to them to disavow their America madness through the clearest demonstration of local-patriotic narrow-mindedness and crankiness” since they are “nationalists but not party liners of the state”. In all matter of course with which US-Americans see their social conditions as natural, politics is mainly seen where the ideas natural to US-Americans can and must be assured and enforced outwards. When empty-headed critics describe the motive of profit belonging to our private capitalist system as rotten, they ignore the fact that this motive is the economic foundation of all the human rights that we possess and that without it all rights would soon disappear” (Dwight D. Eisenhower, US President 1953-61).

The US stands for an “atrophy of the Hegelian-Durkheimian vision of the state as a collective authority entrusted with awakening and realizing collective consciousness and collective will and strengthening social bonds.” A right of the general public to enter private lands like forests still maintained in Germany does not exist in the US. The negative utopia of a natural society appears down to the last detail in the management of the state monopoly of physical force lax by European standards. In the US, a strong lobby, the National Rifle Association, prevents any control of private possession of small arms (70 million). In the 80s, the murder rate was seven to ten times as high as in most European countries and Japan. In the US, being a victim of a violent crime is more likely than enduring a car accident or dying of cancer. “In the middle of the 80s, the likelihood for an American to be raped was three times as high as for a west German. The chance for an American to be a victim of an armed robbery was six times as great as for a west German” (Knobl, 1994). “Violence is as American as cherry pie” (Rap Brown).

The multiculturalism positively ascribed to the US also is an ambiguous positive model passed off by some of its local propagandists. Rather a coexistence of ethnic communities indifferent or hostile to one another occurs in the US. The concentration of Koreans at the centers New York (more than 100,000 persons), San Francisco (100,000), Los Angeles and Southern California (400,000) allows immigrants an almost autonomous existence. In the metropolitan areas in the Pacific, large signs on the expressway point to `Korea town’ in which nearly every desire can be fulfilled without a word of the English language. Korean is enough” (Frankfurt Allgemeiner Zeitung, Feb 7, 1992). Frank Boeckelmann writes in a 1999 non-fiction book from the Friedrich-Ebert endowment of the SPD: “The groups participating in America identify as races and ethnic groups by what separates them, no longer by what unites them.”

“The Northern states will maintain their Anglo-Saxon Protestant character. However the states of the South will drift towards an `Hispanic’ ascendency and the southeast states to a majority of blacks. No one knows whether the threefold ethnic division of the US will result in a political splitting into three nations…”

The culturalized and ethnicized disaggregation is based on structures deeply entrenched in the US way of life. The negative utopia of a retreat of people in family, community and ethnic-social homogeneous neighborhoods is predominant. Between these “islands of equality and happiness” (Wagner 1977), the raw nature exists which one crosses with every journey between residence and place of work. Not stopping too long at the traffic light in many regions or at least keeping the car locked is regarded as entirely normal. “The self-ghettoization in the preferred neighborhood shields” (Armanski 1981). “Americans never experience society as a complex, differentiated division of labor structure of all people, with serious problems and challenges that must be urgently solved. They only experience their island” (Wagner 1977).

The mobility that is objectively necessary and also subjectively attractive (the number of relocations is many times more than in European countries) intensifies the spacelessness. The constant change of location undermines the anchoring and association of people and makes the formation of a social space seemingly unnecessary. Exit appears as a solution. The symbol of American society, the author Louis Kronenberger said, is the moving van. Gainfully employed persons of middle age change their firm every two and a half years. A change of location is often bound with that change. Entering into close bonds is hardly rewarding under these circumstances. People who frequently relocate with their families learn to form their contacts loosely” (Raeithel 1989). The accessibility and simplicity of its inhabitants, readiness to help, the casual and informal relations that appear attractive to tourists in the US are only one side of the medallion. “The distinction between strangers and friends common among us… hardly occurs in the US. The tourist can easily comprehend the neighbor as a `friend’ since one `makes’ friends quickly in America. The term `making friends’ explains itself.” (Grundmann 1997). Opportunism plays an important role here. Since no one wants to perish alone, one never knows how he or she can be useful. Having to be and wanting to be always open for connection becomes second nature. The attitude of “entering no close or lasting relations” is culturally cultivated in the US as a presupposition for social ascent.”… The informality in social relations intensifies the poverty problematic. The disregard that traditionally meets the older generation allows an old age provision full of gaps to arise” (Raeithel 1989).

The US is a “country that defines itself or lives with its time through movement. Whoever stands still lives inverted. Being underway is part of life. America is the showplace to which people are on the way in very different paths” (Thoma 2000). Subjectively the central motif of the American way of life helps in understanding the top position of the US in waste production (2 kilograms waste per person per day). Garbage dumps can be hidden in the expanse of space. “Waste avoidance… does not fit the ideal of movement… Whoever throws away doesn’t only carry out a careless gesture and simply abandon what could be repaired and used again. Whoever throws away cleans himself from the old… Keeping something too long insults the spirit of movement” (Thoma 2000).

A negative radicalization is also encountered in the US-American development of consumption. How they save time and effort appears in many typical US consumer goods (particularly cars). These effects affect the development of human abilities and senses… “Americans are known on one hand for their great interest in correct food and on the other hand for their disinterest in the joys of eating… Good cooking and joy in eating are in no way dependent on income or membership in the upper classes. Quite the contrary, the enormous variety of ingredients in European and Mexican cooking rests on the fact that poor people must use everything edible and make these ingredients enjoyable with great imagination.” The US-American frequently tries to “save money and time and energy through indifference towards food. When he is ready to accept fruit and vegetables in doses or as juice – even though fresh goods are available – he saves with all three factors… Thus the food industry owes its existence to the desire of consumers to save labor… The majority of our labor-saving foods and prefabricated foods cause a large part of the interest, variety, gracefulness and eating enjoyment to be lost. These negative effects work cumulatively. Several things have changed in eating although the fast-food chains post record expansion (cf. Ritzer 1997).

The other side of the institutional and subjective presence of initiatives for a social development of society is the moralization of life found far more strongly in the US. For example, two social reference letters and two business reference letters are often required for a rental agreement. “The rent or purchase of housing regulated in Germany as legal affairs are elements of community formation in America. The renter in Germany is only formally protected. He can demand a caution and fix the rules in the house. The Coop Board in America subjects candidates to a characteristic examination” (Thoma 2000). With these letters of recommendation, “the business with housing shares nowadays in that improvement institution as Benjamin Franklin conceived the American society.”

In the US, the social development of society is rated low. The moral integrity of the government personnel is all the more important. “The counter-program to the misuse of the formal government is the influence of the personal character, the growth of the individual” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). A public confession like Clinton’s admission (on Sept 1, 1998) is analogous: “I need God’s help to become the person that I want to be… I will continue my path of repentance and seek spiritual assistance… Change is not simple. An act of will is necessary to change oneself… This means losing face and beginning everything again which is always painful. This means saying `I am sorry’. This means recognizing that we have the ability to change ourselves” (quoted in Thoma, 2000). With this public self-accusation and the promise of active repentance, Clinton is “not a late victim of Puritanism but its last hero. Whoever wants to perfect himself admits his imperfection. This logic rescued Clinton. Admission of mistakes would have been useless to him without the firm confession to improve himself” (Thoma 2000). The public denunciation of crimes through the precise reporting of offenses and the full names of the offenders including residential addresses in the local press is part of moralization.

A discourse is connected with moralization in which personal responsibility and self-confidence represent central goals that could be undermined by state assistance. “What is already decided in the biographies of individuals through no fault of their own is simply abridged. Not wanting to see that preliminary decisions occur through circumstances of life reflects an inconsiderate denial of realities. The possibility of sentencing children like adults existing in most states of the US is part of that ideology” (Thoma 2000). The backside of moralization and the attractiveness of “individualization” (Thoma 2000) is private charity. $175 billion in donations was offered in 1998 along with voluntary charitable works. Hegel (Philosophy of Law2 #242) already identified the limit of this moral charity …

Church taxes and state subsidies are lacking for religious projects in the western country with the greatest religious organizational memberships. A non-interference of the state in religious affairs prevails… As unscrupulous competition is encouraged in the economy, “diversification and innovation” are promoted on the religious market because they advance the market. “With its increasingly mobile and heterogeneous society, religious America has become a divine supermarket where a church can be found or created for nearly every conceivable taste” (Ruthuen 1991). A rich diverse text like the Bible can justify practically every conceivable political or social attitude.” The tendency to prefer personal redemption to the public welfare is also religiously hegemonial in the US. “Regional, social and ideological oppositions potentially tearing the nation find their outlet in normal times in religion and the saving of souls.” “The little utopias that may flourish behind church walls neutralize one another. They take away heat from worldly politics, tame the passions, limit conflicts and preserve civil peace. Only when the denominational barriers (affecting religious groups) are broken and great moral crusades are kindled… will the political status quo be seriously threatened.” Wicked tongues say “the US has not become a church state because there are too many religions that seek to establish their own church state” (Haslinger 1992).

A society that radicalizes deregulated competition and individual survival, idealizing them as national sports and as the pursuit of happiness and declaring almost everything controllable commodities must not be surprised about records in criminality, drug addiction and pornography. Many religious groups in the US describe the consequences of social conditions as individual aberrations. The churches are the most effective counter-pole to the extreme mobility and provide “the most important places of encounter and assembly of the American society” (Haslinger 1992).

The revaluation of many values absolutely necessary for capitalist consumption leads to a confusion and uncertainty that create a new demand for religious support. What is striking is less a double morality (which abundantly exists) than an ultimate or religiously conceived imaginary foundation of a deterritorialized and thoroughly fragmented society. US-Americans mainly find what is obliging in the idea of their nation. Those framing conditions promoting the pursuit of individual interest of `self-made men’ and the pursuit of happiness are embedded in that idea. Rejecting the central ideas of this doctrine means being `un-American’. There is no British or French, German or Japanese `confession of faith’. The Academie Francaise worries about the purity of the French language, not about the purity of France’s political ideas. What would be an `un-French’ political idea? However occupation with `un-American’ political ideas or behavior patterns remains a constantly recurring theme in American life. `It has been our fate as a nation’, Richard Hofstadter remarked, `to have no ideology but to be one.’ This identification of nationality with its political creed or values gives the US its unique character” (Huntington 1982).

The diffusion of the oath of allegiance, the US-American flag and patriotic T-shirts (for example during the Gulf war) is also massive. In no other modern country is the idea of being an exemplary model for the world, the belief in its own election and a sending consciousness so glaring and manifest again and again for centuries as the US. The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 also gives cause for the “battle of good against evil” (George W. Bush). At the same time it shows how a nation in collective feelings gets together into a community that understands itself only negatively through outward threats. The society is collectively present mainly as an `stimulation community’… Stirred up with hysterical and scaremongering communication, a pseudo-whole vibrating in common themes and anxieties forms out of an intensely diversified national body (Sloterdijk 1998). As with the victory parade of the Gulf heroes on June 8, 1991 in Washington, it was soon said again: “The enemies of peace, these brutal aggressors, could not withstand the common prayers of 250 million Americans” (George Bush 1992). Much can still be expected from the US.

We are 100% volunteer and depend on your participation to sustain our efforts!


$55.00 donated
in the past month

Get Involved

If you'd like to help with maintaining or developing the website, contact us.


Publish your stories and upcoming events on Indybay.

IMC Network