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Primitive America

Primitive America: The Ideology of Capitalist Democracy

Paul Smith
Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 176
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttt40z
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  • Book Info
    Primitive America
    Book Description:

    For cultural critic Paul Smith, the tension between progressive and primitive is a constitutive condition of American history and culture. In Primitive America, Smith contemplates this primary contradiction as it has played out in the years since 9/11. An urgent and important engagement with current American policies and practices, Primitive America is, at the same time, an incisive critique of the ideology that fuels the ethos of America’s capitalist culture._x000B_

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-5425-3
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. preamble
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. “we” and “you”
    (pp. 1-4)

    doris Lessing’s rueful but carefully aimed words (published in a post– 9/11 issue ofGrantamagazine, where a constellation of writers had been asked to address “What We Think of America”) have obviously done little to inhibit the progress of American excess in the five years since the terrorist attacks. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the voices of even the most considerable of foreign intellects were hardly alone in being rendered inaudible by the solipsistic noise that immediately took over the American public sphere. All kinds of voices and words, from within America and without, immediately lost standing...

  5. dialectics
    (pp. 5-9)

    The American “we” is, in fact, a construct of the very “you” I have just been talking about. This “we” is generated through the power of the long, blank gaze emanating from the American republic that dispassionately, without empathy, and certainly without love, refuses to recognize most of the features of the world laid out at its feet; a gaze that can acknowledge only that part of the world that is compliant and willing to act as a reservoir of narcissistic supply to the colossus.

    Appropriately (in light of the events of 9/11, certainly, and probably before that), it is...

  6. freedom, equality, democracy
    (pp. 10-13)

    If this dialectic between the “you” and the “we” can claim to represent anything about America’soutwardconstitution, it would necessarily find some dialectical counterpart in theinwardconstitution of this state. At the core of the fundamental notions of “the American way of life” that “you” rallied around after 9/11, that allow “you” to kill Iraqis in order to liberate them, and that appear daily in governmental and media discourses, there are several pivotal terms. These are the heavily freighted notions of freedom, equality, and democracy that, more than a century and a half ago, de Tocqueville deployed as...

  7. love and contradiction
    (pp. 13-17)

    This “dynamism” in American culture has been sold to “us” as much as to “you”—perhaps even more determinedly and extensively in some ways. “Brand America” has been successfully advertised all around the world, in ways and places and to an extent that most Americans are probably largely unaware of. While Americans would probably have some consciousness of the reach of the corporate media, or of Hollywood, and necessarily some idea of the reach of other brands such as McDonald’s, most could not have much understanding of how the very idea of America has been sold and bought abroad. For...

  8. what is not allowed to be said
    (pp. 18-19)

    It is easy enough to list the kinds of things that could not be said or mentioned immediately after 9/11, or to enumerate the sorts of speech that were disallowed, submerged, or simply ignored as the narratives panic and catastrophe set in to reorder “you” and begin the by-now lengthy process of attenuating freedom. Among the things that were not allowed to be said or mentioned was President Bush’s disappearance or absence the morning of the attacks. The media also very quickly elided contradictions in the incoming news reports about not only the terrorist airplanes, but about any possible defensive...

  9. narcissistic symbols
    (pp. 19-22)

    On 9/11, there were initially some media discussions about how the Twin Towers might have been chosen for destruction because of their function as symbols of American capitalist power in the age of globalization. David Harvey suggests in his essay that in fact it was only in the non-American media that such an understanding was made available, and that the American media talked instead about the towers simply as symbols of American values and freedom, or the American way of life (57). My memory, though, is that the primary American media, in the first blush of horrified reaction, did indeed...

  10. narcissistic refraction
    (pp. 22-27)

    for Jean Baudrillard, during his travels around America in the 1980s, a notably recurring feature was a solitary, isolated figure in the midst of the hyperactivity of the culture, like the skateboarder with a Walkman rolling around the cityscape. Everywhere, he says, “you find the same blank solitude, the same narcissistic refraction” (34). Baudrillard’s idiosyncratic travelogue,America,is in many respects intended as a twentieth-century commentary on de Tocqueville and on a whole tradition of critical “Old World” views of the American republic, and seems as much a critique of the chronically patronizing and disapproving stance of the old Europeans...

  11. subject of value
    (pp. 27-32)

    Herbert Marcuse’s form of social psychology has certainly been more highly regarded than it is now. The same could be said of the work of several of his Frankfurt School colleagues that, however variously, attempted to delineate the structure of a social subject under advanced capitalism (along with Marcuse’s own “one-dimensional man,” one thinks of Adorno’s “authoritarian personality,” or Fromm’s “man for himself,” for instance). But despite some well-established difficulties with this kind of work, it seems clear that the effort to examine the dialectic of subject and structure (a mainstay for generations of sociologists) remains a crucial analytical task...

  12. historical fictions
    (pp. 33-37)

    hubert Damisch, inSkyline: The Narcissistic City(2001), says that the goal of his book’s discussion of a whole range of American cultural phenomena is to locate “the moment America constituted itself, in its own eyes, as a scene on which it dreaded having to recognize itself for what it was” (88). Evidently for Damisch this is not so much a strictly historical question as a question about the American imaginary, or about America’s fictions about itself. America is for him essentially “the site of its own fiction . . . the site where people turn from their past towards...

  13. primitive
    (pp. 38-43)

    to buttress his claim that America is “the only remaining primitive society,” Jean Baudrillard rehearses the old cliché that America has no history. It is a society, he says, “inhabited by a total metasocial fact . . .whose immanence is breathtaking, yet lacking a past through which to reflect on this [it is] therefore fundamentally primitive” (America,7). Baudrillard’s hyperbole is, presumably, intended to equal the hyperbolic culture he sees in his American travels, but it nonetheless remains strange to talk of America as having no past, no history. Its history is, in fact, the history of elided histories, as...

  14. fetishism
    (pp. 43-45)

    when Marx set out to characterize the nature of the new capitalist formations around him, he frequently had recourse to a vocabulary of primitivism and mysticism, and the (well-known though often abused) concept of commodity fetishism is one of the principal examples. Commodity fetishism names the way that capitalism installs the commodity as a stand-in for direct social relations between subjects. That is, it is the name Marx gives to the specific mode of ordering human interaction in the capitalist mode of production, where objects both mediate and dictate the nature of social relations. The fetishism Marx speaks of describes...

  15. atavism
    (pp. 45-50)

    the world that the regime of commodity fetishism generates, now indisputably a global effort in the expansion of the means of consumption, is experienced differentially by different nations, groups, classes. I borrow the expression “experienced differentially” from Kevin Robins, whose 1997 account of the cultural processes of globalization, “What in the World’s Going On?” rightly emphasizes the ways that access to the culture is unevenly distributed. That is to say, while the seductions of consumerism are audible to more and more people’s ears around the globe, access to the commodities themselves is less and less equal. The Retort group, in...

  16. primitive accumulation
    (pp. 50-56)

    i have been using the idea of atavism as a way of pointing to another variation on capital’s theme, so to speak, whereby the primitive is structured into the progressiveness of this politico-economic system. The Retort group talks in similar terms when they suggest that a mixture of “atavism and new-fangledness” characterizes the current moment (186). For them, the “new-fangledness” is epitomized by what might be called mediatized capitalism—a phrase that would designate the ever-expanding capacities of the media and communication technologies in spectacularizing capitalism and globalizing both production and consumption. The atavism they speak of, dialectically bound up...

  17. imperial power
    (pp. 57-71)

    a merica’s experience of primitive accumulation, under what Aglietta calls “the ideal economic conditions for capitalism to take hold” (75), revolved crucially around both the ideological concept and the material reality of the frontier. The supposedly endless possibilities for capitalism’s expansion across the continent obviously constituted, and still constitute, a significant imaginary for American life. Indeed, as Aglietta says, in the nineteenth century, “expansion became the dominant phenomenon in American life; it could almost be identified with the country’s history” (74). But after the Civil War, the expansionist urge turned rather quickly to the frontier beyond American borders and thus...

  18. meaningless politics
    (pp. 71-75)

    the view of contemporary imperialism that I have been putting forward here, though it rejects the Leninist shibboleths, still stipulates that imperialism is fundamentally a product of contemporary capitalist economic relations. Whether we call those economic relations globalization, neoimperialism, or some other name, the salient features are empirically the same: indisputably, capitalism is involved in extending its regime of wage relations everywhere around the globe, seeking also to free up any blocked arteries in the international circulation of capital, and resorting opportunistically and aggressively to whatever acts of dispossession present themselves. These are all points that I tried to make...

  19. ideologues
    (pp. 76-85)

    there has been in the United States since 9/11 a double strategy at work: not only an outward display of imperialist relations, but also an inward display of them. What I mean is that a crucial part of the international imperialism we now face is funded by thedeliberateevacuation of the national democratic relation, and aknowingpush toward authoritarianism, certainly within the United States. Indeed, it would not be outlandish to argue that Bush’s “war on terror,” the occupation of Afghanistan, and the sacking of Iraq should be understood as exactly the occasion and the opportunity for what...

  20. fascism
    (pp. 85-89)

    the relationship between the foreign policy imaginary and the narcissistic sense of America is, as I’ve said, symbiotic: the one formation enables the other. Thus the logic of the domestic actions of the Bush government have to be seen as inextricably linked to the logic of its foreign policy actions. The post–9/11 domestic happenings are simultaneously a necessary precondition to and a necessary consequence of U.S. attempts to gain hegemony in the interstate system. Just as the peculiar role of the United States in international imperialism is crucial to understanding what is happening inside its borders, the state of...

  21. legal matters
    (pp. 89-99)

    stanley Payne’s otherwise instructive and thorough account of historical fascism, from which I have drawn to outline the features of fascism proper, makes little or no mention of fascism’s relation to the law and legal structures. This is, however, one aspect of fascist regimes that receives repeated attention in Hannah Arendt’sThe Origins of Totalitarianism.Notably, Arendt argues that the whole arena of the German juridical system (legislatures, courts, coded laws and constitution, and so on) had to be essentially evacuated and reformulated for fascism to take firm hold. She notes, too, that the rise of fascism necessarily included the...

  22. animals
    (pp. 100-106)

    the establishment of such a totemic view of the Constitution, atavistic as its ideological motives may be, clearly amounts to a particular kind ofpoliticization.It is, indeed, the prerequisite fundament for the “politicalreligionof constitutionalism” that Carnes Lord has called for 230). But, as Marx argued in regard to the various post-Enlightenment constitutions in Europe and America, their primary aim is to establish and protect the power of the political state, while simultaneously producing a “universal secular contradiction between the political state and civil society” (Marx and Engels,Collected Works3:159). The human or civil rights that these constitutions...

  23. human rights
    (pp. 106-115)

    i have been suggesting that the promotion of a primitive belief in some sense of natural law—based, as Lord puts it, in “the nature of things”—has facilitated the establishment of an at least inchoate authoritarian politics in America. The fact of 9/11 has made this all the more possible, but it is a feature of American culture and life that has been always ready to be activated, as it were. From the historical problem of vigilantism, to the widespread claims for “victims’ rights” and objections to the Miranda laws, through to the Patriot Act today, American culture is...

  24. precarious politics
    (pp. 115-124)

    at the very start of this book I affirmed that this was not to be yet another assault on the Bush administration (though the specificity of the post–9/11 situation amply warrants such assaults), and that my own emphasis was to be different. I hope, since then, to have laid out as simply as possible a sense that America did not change on 9/11—at least not in the ways that “you” are assured. What has happened, rather, is that many of the basic constitutive features and historical tendencies of the American republic and its history have emerged into configurations...

  25. acknowledgments
    (pp. 125-126)
  26. works cited
    (pp. 127-132)
  27. index
    (pp. 133-135)
  28. Back Matter
    (pp. 136-136)