As the George Floyd protests erupted in late May, Dr. Cornel West appeared on CNN and said, “We are witnessing America as a failed social experiment.” He went on to lament the United States’ seemingly unbridgeable racial divide, our biased and unjust legal system, and our brutal market-driven economy that renders far too many of our citizens unable to live with dignity. At first, it’s easy to accept his premise that the American experiment has been a dud, but before we finalize this diagnosis, it’s necessary to ask ourselves: who exactly is America failing, and who is it not failing? The more we ponder that question, the more convincing the position that America was designed to fail the majority of its people all along, for the benefit of those equipped to flourish amongst its twisted and perverse set of cultural norms and societal priorities.
Think about it. If you are, as our Founding Fathers were, a particularly cunning, ambitious, and competitive go-getter intent on amassing limitless wealth by virtue of your various enviable skills and talents, America is and has always been the ideal venue for such a project. Its largely unregulated and uniquely privatized market economy make it relatively easy to get very rich, very quickly, provided you have just the right set of personal attributes. And as you build your fortune, the increasingly poorer and more miserable masses of people are told they ought not resent you for all you have that they don’t, but rather, that they should admire you, and aspire to be you. After all, you got to where you are through intelligence, grit, determination, and ingenuity. If only the poor and working classes would stop seeing themselves as “victims” and start developing some of those same character traits, there’s nothing stopping them from ascending the meritocracy just as you did.
In this scenario, you don’t have to suppress the peasantry by force (you wouldn’t want to do that anyway, would you? I mean, you’re a nice person. You’re not looking to rip anybody off, you’re just a good businessman who makes an honest living); conveniently, the mob of would-be revolutionaries keeps itself in line by internalizing the idea that they too will perhaps be as successful as you are someday, thanks to the “freedom” and “opportunity” their country affords them.
But, you ask, what if the masses catch on to this scam and realize that they’re never going to make it as far as I did, because they’re just not as smart, or talented, or driven, or lucky as I am? What if they band together and come for me, and insist that their society stops idealizing unlimited accumulation of wealth and restructure itself for the common good?
Relax, my friend. No need to worry about that. Because not only is America the land of opportunity, where you’re free to go as far as your God-given potential will take you, it’s also a “melting pot.” It’s where people of all races, genders, and religious backgrounds are afforded the same rights and opportunities to thrive - at least that’s our story. Of course, this multicultural paradise we’re describing was founded on two holocausts - one of its indigenous people, and one of African slaves - and has never undergone a serious reckoning with its horrifically racist history. But that’s the other part of our scheme! We drench the population in superficial diversity worship to atone for our “imperfect” past, while doing nothing to actually dismantle systemic racism, and making no serious effort to confront cultural racism either. This way, even if enough poor and working class people did come together to threaten our monopoly on wealth and power, their age-old prejudices would inevitably fracture any political coalition they may try and form.
And if, against all odds, poor and working people actually do seem on track to unite against us, we’re prepared for that scenario as well. We’ve got a media and celebrity class full of people of all colors, genders, and sexual orientations, who share our class interests and our investment in the status quo! They, like us, have done very well for themselves in this great country we built for ourselves, and in a pinch, they’ll be deployed to run interference on our behalf.
They’ll turn the masses against each other by calling them “class reductionists,” and reminding everyone in their movement of their relative “privilege” compared to their fellow comrades. They’ll insist that poor whites are privileged because they’re not poor blacks. That ought to do the trick all by itself, but in case it doesn’t, we can take this as far as we need to. We can always convince poor black men that they’re privileged because they’re not poor black women. And convince poor cis-gendered black women that they’re privileged because they’re not poor transgendered black women. We’ll remind them that America is all about diversity and inclusion, and then ask them, Why are you so hellbent on improving your own material conditions when there are so many in society who would give anything just to belong to a privileged identity group like yours? Why don’t you care about those who are less fortunate? Why are you only concerned with “free stuff” for you and your ilk?
Okay, you say, these divide and conquer tactics set against a backdrop of utopian lore about liberty and multiculturalism have worked thus far, but what if one day, they don’t?
Easy, big fella. There’s no real chance of that. Because not only are we a greedy society that celebrates wealth and success as moral virtues, and a racist culture that preaches tolerance and inclusivity, but we’re also a “nation of immigrants!” You see, we’re importing a new underclass of marginalized people every single day! So in the extremely unlikely scenario that the multiracial working class is able to set their identity-based grievances aside and form a cohesive and viable social and/or political movement, we’ll sabotage that effort by turning them against these undocumented workers who threaten what little job security they already have!
And that’s checkmate. Because those who call for tighter immigration restrictions will be branded as racists, and any movement that promotes unfettered immigration will have their redistributive policy proposals crushed in the court of broader public opinion by being made to answer the impossible theoretical question of how do we pay for universal social programs without limiting the number of people we allow into the country?
From this perspective, America isn’t really failing, it’s succeeding. The plan from the beginning was never to create a prosperous and harmonious community of diverse individuals and families; it was always a contradiction of false promises and exaggerated claims smoothed over by mythology and propaganda. Wealth for the few, opportunity for the many; tolerance in theory, bigotry in practice; internationalism in the mind, globalism in the body, nativism in the soul.
As far as the “American social experiment” is concerned, these contradictions aren’t bugs, they’re features. America as we know it wouldn’t exist without them. According to the premises of this experiment, inequality isn’t a function of oppression, but rather, an inevitable byproduct of liberty. Universality, the most anti-racist principle there is, isn’t sufficiently “woke,” because it doesn’t confront racial disparities as directly as neoliberal half-measures like affirmative action or race-based tuition assistance. Globalism and immigration are lauded as forward-thinking 21st century initiatives, and anyone who asks the wrong questions about cheap labor and outsourcing of jobs is dismissed as a retrograde rube.
So now, ask yourself again, is America really a failed state? Or is it simply a state intended to neglect the majority of its people for the purpose of enriching its elites, who, because of their exceptional abilities and the intricacies of the system’s design, get to live free of both guilt and the guillotine? Is a system founded in slavery and genocide, predicated on a privatized market economy, embodied by a global population, and perpetuated through an immigrant work ethic, actually designed to succeed?
I suppose it all depends on who you are, and your definition of “success.”
Photo: Jerry Jackson, Baltimore Sun