The End of the American Empire

I recently came across three videos on YouTube wherein David Simon (of “The Wire” fame) is speaking at Loyola University about “unencumbered Capitalism” which has resulted in an “existential crisis” of epic proportions, namely the reality that “people matter less.” As he notes within the opening minute of part 1 of the video:

I am wholly pessimistic about American society, I believe that The Wire is a show about the end of the American empire. I believe that we all—or our kids—are going to live that event. And how we end up at the end of it and where we end up and whether or not we can survive it on what terms is going to be the question….The great conceit of The Wire…[is that] every single moment on this planet from here on out human beings are worth less…human beings have lost some of their value.

“End of the American Empire, Part 1”:

That is some serious shit, and the whole question of devaluing individuals is directly related to post-industrial malaise of the US wherein semi-skilled labor in the Western world is no longer a viable means of survival has created two drastically different Americas, and the America no on e sees or talks about is what he terms “the other America,” and is framing o our particular moment and the complete amnesia when it comes to the dignity of the individual and the core value of a society being how it treats it’s most abject and disenfranchised members gets to the heart of the sinking feeling I often struggle with when watching this country go deeper and deeper into the corporate sponsored abyss.

Simon’s point is so beautifully backed-up and reported by Greg Palast yesterday in his piece “Grand Theft Auto: How Stevie the Rat bankrupted GM”which lays out quite specifically how the vultures have not only helped to expedite the fall of the American working class, but now plan on picking all the meat of their bones by stripping the workers of their rightful funds (think pension benefits, etc.) in order to pay back “privileged GM lenders – led by Morgan and Citibank.” It’s just remarkable to me how one can simply look to any current event to bear witness to everything Simon talks about in the three videos below (and on The Wire, for that matter). And according to Palast our President and media darling Barak Obama is in on the big kill taker. So, do we value human beings less and less everyday in this country? Well, I’ll leave that to you, but it is certainly a stroke of horrifying genius that Simon’s next series Treme will focus on New Orleans and Katrina—he’s the Melville of our moment, and his The Confidence-Man took us down the Mississippi
River to new Orleans by way of Baltimore.

“End of the American Empire, Part 2”

“End of the American Empire, Part 3”

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18 Responses to The End of the American Empire

  1. Laura says:

    I’m not sure I can bear to watch the videos as I tend to have to talk myself out of a seriously pessimistic view of society every day. I am torn about the whole GM thing. My father-in-law worked for GM for 30 years, retired at 51 and starting drawing his pension at 63 1/2. I have no idea if he’ll still have that. He was management and so not unionized, but he got really good benefits. He, and his father before him, believed in the idea of working for one company all your life. I believe strongly in workers’ rights, but I also know that unions can sometimes not have the best interests of the company at heart; they are, quite rightly, often thinking pretty short term. Did their strong negotiations for really good benefits bring GM down? Combined with a poor business strategy on management’s part, was it enough to bring the whole thing down? Or, is that a red herring being thrown about by management types in an effort to impugn unions? I don’t know.

    I’ve experienced first hand not being cared about as a worker. And I had a pretty cush job compared to a factory worker. But I have this nagging feeling in my gut that we’re all cogs in a giant machine being run by the rich and powerful. And yes, I’m thinking about Metropolis here. My only hope is that they are truly unhappy people, unable to enjoy the fruits of their power. But I fear that is not the case.

    How do we make people valuable again? We pay attention to them. We empathize with them. We connect to them. I think many of us with blogs are trying to do that. We are saying to the universe, “I am here, talk with me a while, and I’ll listen to you.” I know that sounds really corny, but I have to keep thoughts like that in my head or life will seem meaningless.

  2. Reverend says:

    Laura,

    The underground city in Metropolis is a perfect vision, the difference is figures of the manual laborers becoming part of their machine would have to replaced by folks who are looking for a machine. The new figure wouldn’t be exploitative labor, but the absence of it. A kind of dispossession, though you are right about the gut feeling that we all are cogs, and the university mission as some kind of humanitarian vision collides so strikingly with the increasingly devalued sense of worth of people—it’s a scary argument indeed. But what I like about his stuff is he isn’t framing a thesis as much as letting some smart ideas out within some larger, allegorical space—much like Metropolis once again—you nailed that one.

    The idea of creating value through paying attention and communing is so key, ad it seems that is, in and of itself, a luxury. Which is so odd, because that idea of being their asking others to talk to you and listen has increasingly become something we is harder and harder to do. Not only because of time, but context, and and undergirding fear that somehow anything and everything we say or so can be used against us somehow. That, in my opinion, is how we are moving to a state of cultural meltdown. No one has the will or even inclination to question what they are doing or challenge the eduwalmart effect that is killing education in general, not to mention the rest of US culture and beyond.

    What’s amazing to me is that I too don’t want to fall of the abyss, and I do believe in people and the community around me. But I also wonder why doing or saying what we feel, and challenging the status quo has become so deeply enmeshed in fear and doubt. I always figured tenure was a rite of passage for just that possibility, but increasingly I think it is simply another form of job security that has little to do with some kind of deeper investment in speaking and challenging the very loss of dignity and human value that should be at the very heart of the educational mission anywhere. We are losing the sense that what we are fighting over is not technology or tools, but some re-imagination of the celebration of people as valuable and worthy of compensation, a livable age, and some god damn protection. These tools are about reaching out and conversing, but more than that about some ideal vision of a loosely joined front of individuals that believe in and are willing to both establish and fight for some basic ideas of social justice. Unencumbered capitalism will eat us all, and we have had some pretty striking examples of this since 2001—and Simon;s work puts so much of it into focus with a hard edge that reminds us that the very idea of labor value and our place as citizens and souls under capitalism is changing radically. I think the corny is key, and reflects that little bit of human dignity we have fought to maintain. I just wonder how long it can last.

  3. I don’t watch The Wire, and I think Simon is out of touch w/r/t life in NYC, as so much has changed since he first based his show on the crack scene there. As a political analyst, he’s as equally out of touch, perhaps by design.

    However, what we’re experiencing today can be explained in the lyrics to “The Trees” by Rush. Basically, instead of fostering an environment of achievement and individualism, we are being told that we must be sacrificed for the greater good, whatever that may be this week. It makes sense, then, that Capitalism is the “evil do-er” in all of this because it’s the system that favors individualism, and there can be no sense of individuality or self-worth in a system of self-sacrifice.

    Laura’s question on how to make people valuable again is a good, and frightening one. Frightening in that we’ve come to a point as a society that humans [as individuals] are viewed as “the problem” (id est, if we all worked for the same goal, with the same mindset, all would be well) It is also good in that it shows the individual is resistant to the machine that wants to envelop it.

    The answer? Very simple…..restore freedom, achievement, individualism and reason. However, this would require that the state first separate itself from business activity, which, of course, is exactly the opposite of what is happening. With the government take-over / murder of GM, “you” has come to mean “the state”…to quote Michael Moore “But you and I and the rest of America now own a car company!” Fine….give me MY shares, Berry….but there is no MY in Berry’s world, only WE.

    Individuals are just cogs in that great “we” in Washington, where The Thinkers reside. I don’t mean von Harbor’s naive conceptualization of The Thinkers, I mean those who are currently controlling which companies live and die, which corporations’ leaders are appointed to positions in the administration, and who profits from all of it in the end. This isn’t a dystopian future, it’s a dystopian present!

    And don’t think there isn’t a movement to silence the bloggers. I’d suggest Googling “HR 1966 felony”, but I fear I’ve said too much already!

  4. Laura says:

    Peter, I agree w/r/t the state’s involvement in business. I think the quickest way to restore a real democracy would be to get rid of all the industry lobby groups. I just fired off three letters to my representatives as I believe in participating whenever and wherever I can–I like being a squeaky wheel. But in general, I feel somewhat helpless. I feel like no one’s standing up for me, much less people who are less well situated than I am.

    And I googled hr 1966 felony–scary stuff. On the other hand, I believe there do need to be consequences for what we do online. Just that we need to have reasonable lines drawn. For example, mom and her daughter who set up a fake identity that eventually led to the suicide of another teen should be punished. But calling someone an asshole? Unless you can prove harrassment and I don’t think that’s a felony.

    I think we need to keep plugging away, doing things on a local level to value people more and keep hounding our representatives.

    BTW, Jim, where’s the Bava 10? I so wanted to see if I could compete! 🙂

  5. Laura, I agree, a separation of business and state amendment would help to restore some of the value of the individual. Very difficult to do, though…for example, Al Gore is a senior adviser for Google and is a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Both have close ties to the Obama administration, and the latter will make a nice profit off the cap-and-trade bill!

  6. Just wanted to thank you for posting these clips. Very eye opening and I love to get my hands on anything Simon has touched.

    I would highly recommend reading The Corner if you haven’t already done so for a closer look into, duh, The Corners of Baltimore.

    @peter, just curious if you don’t watch The Wire why you felt the need to comment on this post. It appears that you are a die hard capitalist with no soft spot for the greater good, but for the record it is the same this week as it always has been, a more equitable society where human need is our main priority.

    I have a feeling that like The Wire you didn’t watch these clips either, I suggest you do so.

    Thanks Bava!

  7. @Jabiz I’ve seen those videos, which have been around for over 2 years and critiqued beyond recognition in the process, BTW. His ideas, both within the scripts of the show and presented in the videos, are neither new nor insightful [as I mentioned and outlined in my comments]. That is also why I do not watch the show on a regular basis.

    As for your ad hominem and insinuation based arguments, there’s nothing to respond to there.

  8. @peter your response was as expected thank you. I will not take up any more space here in this thread, but will close with a proposition that perhaps the path forward is not in condescending, overly self-important comments, but in a clear headed, honest, compassionate look at modern society.

  9. ari says:

    peter
    …respectfully, i think you are out of touch not only with basic economics, but also the pages of american history. i am wondering to which period of american history you would like us to return? this country has always been a managed (or mixed) economy. your ayn rand dream of unfettered capitalism flies in the face of the Social Contract…the undergirding principles of out constitution.
    look, anyone can spew empty platitudes about freedom and individualism, but robot cheerleading gets us no where because reality is much more nuanced and counter-intuitive.
    do you really believe that the individual will always choose “The Good” over “The Profitable”? if so, show me the history that suggests as much. (and please, spare me the cherry picking.)
    also, i am an unapologetic capitalist…but more precisely, i am eco-capitalist…(i.e., i believe in the mantra that was is good for the planet is good for the people is good for the economy).
    last point: you want a hands-off govt. fine. but then that means a hands-off govt with regards to Defense, too.
    here’s the thing, pete: extreme capitalism is only possible because the military-industrial complex. if you are really want a small govt, fine. but the military (and i truly hope this isn’t new to you) IS part of the govt. a big, big part. so in your world, the military becomes smaller, too.
    you cool with that? (doesnt that make you soft on terrorism? according to Faux News?)
    …spend less time worrying about al gore work to build a sustainable society and more time worrying why the iraq war will end up costing tax payers 3 trillion dollars when all is said and done. and for what? to keep us safe? if you believe that is why we invaded iraq, you havent been paying attention…which would explain your myopic comments above.
    xoxo

  10. @Jabiz I’m sorry, but as I stated, I will not engage ad hominem and insinuation centered arguments.

  11. @ari a few quick points: I did not claim that we need to return to the past, so I can’t really comment there. And while Justice Cortes may have claimed the constitution acts as a social contract, that is debatable, depending on which definition of Social Contract you mean [Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, or even Rawls].

    I also find it intriguing that you feel “good” and “profitable” are opposed concepts, as if all profit is inherently evil. To coin a phrase, if profit is the root of all evil, that what is the root of all profit [here’s a clue, Francisco d’Anconia]. Profit by itself does not create a code of values, as wise woman once said.

    W/R/T a “hands-off-government”, why would that require little to no military? If the role of government is to protect individual rights, it would be necessary to have a military in one form or another, and yes, it would be a big portion of government because there would be little else, other than the restrictions of the powers of that military.

    Unfortunately, your argument then turns to ad hominem and insinuation centered arguments.

  12. Reverend says:

    I wonder if the question at the heart of this discussion is something that transcends capitalism or socialism, etc. I think too often we get stuck in these frames, and they inform a kind of attack-based commentary that I’m all too often prone to. One of the issues I have, and that really strikes me about this video is the idea of human value on the decline. The falling value of the individual within a society actually touches on everyone’s points here, though imagining ourselves outside of these pretty specifically defined and articulated systems like capitalism or socialism is next to impossible. What happens is that the systems become the means through which we understand, define, and argue our way through these questions, ironically we always already lived in botched versions of either—and more importantly the individual becomes a pawn of ideology on either side. I’m not sure I have an answer about any of this, but the idea of a post-industrial economy that has very little use and value for a large portion of its laboring population is alarming, yet seems to represent some of the real issues we are struggling with now. Everything is an argument, a way of looking at things, and when anyone becomes too certain of their approach is when discussions like this can be reduced to individual attacks. And, like I said, I have gone there before, but I ultimately don’t see where it gets the ideas which are essential to some kind of hope beyond anyone’s self-satisfied notion of being right.

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  14. Luke says:

    I’m not even sure that Simon would do away with capitalism (and his strength is as a chronicler and observer not as a political theorist or economist). He’s on record as saying that capitalism’s a tremendous engine of growth for an economy; where it breaks down is in how it organizes a society. The Wire was brilliant in how it tracked social disruption through the various institutions that structure our lives. Capitalism is the central, most powerful force in creating and impacting those institutions, but in The Wire there’s no monolithic agent. Failed governance, families, bureaucracies, individual decisions, and, hell, even bad luck are also integrated. Seems pretty “in touch” to me with life as I know and have studied it.

    Now, is this completely original and insightful political, economic, or even social analysis? No. What’s original and insightful about The Wire is how it personifies that analysis through the most dynamic and real range of characters ever assembled in a text, locates it in a specific time and place (Baltimore, Peter; not NYC), and creates compelling drama on the scale of Greek tragedy. Does Simon place most of the blame for the declining value of the individual’s labor on American capitalism ? Yes he does, and I’d tend to agree with him. But reducing The Wire to a simple minded anti-capitalist screed would be to miss much.

  15. ari says:

    peter,

    you will never be talked down from your view/talking point(s). neither will i, for that matter.

    that said:

    …i guess the fatal flaw with ayn rand’s social/economic darwinism (and i’m hardly the first to mention this) is it rests on a false premise: namely, that we all start from a equal place, and we all have an equal chance to succeed. in a word: meritocracy. in another word: hardly.

    99.9 percent of ayn rand ideologues are straight white middle-class men from a judeo-christian background. (and by the image attached to your posts, i’ll hazard a guess that you’re no outlier.)

    respectfully, i would ask you to consider why ayn rand appeals (.1 percent exception granted) to such a monolithic demographic).

    i think the answer is fairly (insultingly?) obvious but, just the same, i’d still like to see you work out the answer on your own.

    look, capitalism generates wealth like no other economic system. but, as marshal mcluhan is wont to say: “anything pushed to its extreme will produce its opposite.”

    …and that’s why, peter, we have a mixed economy. (and since you mentioned locke) that’s why we have a bill or rights…to safeguard against the (hobbe’s) Leviathan.

    btw, weird you felt i was drawing a binary between “good” and “profit”…when i wrote “good” ABOVE “profit.”
    seems a bit disingenuous (straw man?) on your behalf.

    also,
    …i am curious how you came to believe that the military protects individual rights? (isnt it really corporations rights?) reality certainly doesnt square well with your theory. i can point you to 20 different history books or 30 different documentaries–or just open up a major newspaper–if you’d like to see your theory refuted.

    peter, i dont doubt that you mean well. or even that you have something important to contribute. but, respectfully, at some point you are going to have to learn two crucial things:

    (1) the military is one the least effective ways of protecting the individual. dollar for dollar, i’d even say libraries perform the service far better. what ensures a healthy democracy more than an educated populace?

    (2) ecological intelligence: do you know the expression “True North”? it means when we are TRULY making progress, not just making self-defeating, short-term progress. all this is to say: if you really want to make a difference in the world, you are going to have see that you are part of a vibrant yet tenuous ecosystem. and the way you manage the world’s natural resources matter more than any of us can currently grasp.

    last point: if you feel i have trafficked in “insinuation centered arguments,” please hyphenate “insinuation” and “centered”…since (a) that seems to be a pet rejoinder of yours, and (b) you are attempting to use the words as a compound modifier.

  16. Ari, I’d love to discuss this further, but of respect for the Rev, I don’t want to take this thread any further from its original point.

    I’d be happy to discuss all of this on your blog or mine.

  17. I agree with Jim when he says, “when anyone becomes too certain of their approach is when discussions like this can be reduced to individual attacks.”

    And it was not my intention to attack or make ad hominem or insinuation centered arguments, although I can see that is what I may have done.

    So let’s try and get back to the point of the post and videos, which I felt was to address what we can do about, “the idea of a post-industrial economy that has very little use and value for a large portion of its laboring population is alarming.”

    We find ourselves in a time where if a member of society is not able to generate wealth or profit for a corporation they become expendable. (These are the people who Simon portrays so well in The Wire)

    In the hey day of the industrial era, workers in factories, however much exploited were of use to the capitalists (sorry to use Marxist language, but really how else can we express these thoughts.) in that they, through their labor, generated wealth for the very few, but we see now in the post industrial/globalized age that a surplus of labor has made large populations of people unnecessary. See: inner cities, third world, etc…

    The question than becomes how do these marginalized populations find meaning and value in their lives, and if they do not find meaning, what affect will it have on society as a whole? Crime, class war, Mad Max?

    These are the types of questions I feel that Simon is asking with the body of his work and these interviews in particular.

    So I will leave with a question:

    “How do we restore freedom, achievement, individualism and reason to groups of people who have been rendered unnecessary because they do not contribute to wealth creation and the new globalized world order? “

  18. A few more thoughts from Joe Bageant:

    But if one’s experience has been under the boot of the oligarchy, has been as cheap, purposefully uneducated throwaway bodies, then there can be no dignity at all in one’s labor. And a man knows that inside. And the frustration grows like an ulcer upon the man’s soul, a little each day for a lifetime. And a man drinks and busts up a few things now and them. Or just says fuck it some mornings and doesn’t show up. Or tries some oxy. Or maybe joins a Holy Roller church to gain the cold comfort of the preacher’s message that “Jesus loves even an utterly impotent piece shit like you.”

    Yes, you poor dumb sonnuva bitch, Jesus loves you. But the elites need you. The need you to pay for their lawn parties, trips to Europe and to ensure the financial perpetuity of their pampered spawn for generations to come. And as for the so-called “American corporations,” they don’t even need you anymore. They’ve got the laboring throngs of China’s Mandarin capitalism (where civil rights are not an issue), they’ve got Vietnamese and Indonesian factories, and Hatian factories, and those places in Bangaladesh where caged workers can be had for $11 to $42 a month, and the floor boss takes home a different teenaged girl every night.

    Freedom is owning your labor. Period. Negotiating for its cost, not accepting whatever portion is left after the wolves have fully feasted.

    Read the post in its entirety here:

    http://www.joebageant.com/joe/2009/06/oligarchy-corporations-and-unions.html

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