Public Life, Private Capital, and Government (Not the Americans We Were)

(Andy Warhol, Dollar Bill, 1962)

I’ve been reading Philip Roth’s Plot Against America, his novel cum counter-memoir of what happened to America when Charles Lindberg beat Roosevelt in 1940.Needless to say, it does not bode well for the Jews of Newark.

It didn’t really interest me when it first came out in 2004. It’s interesting me more now, in a slightly different political climate, when the issue on the front burner is less on civil rights and “the war on terror” as much as it, post 2008, and the collapse of American capitalism and American public life under the weight of corporate privatization.

One of the visual tricks, perhaps a too obvious one, is to impose a swastika over all the figures and places that define the American civic landscape, circa 1940. This was the threat about which a lot of my friends further to the left of me worried about after 9.11. More subtle, in my opinion, is point made by Roth about history and the unexpected. This line, in particular, caught my eye: “Something essential had been destroyed and lost, we were being coerced to be other than the Americans we were, and yet by the light of the cut-glass chandelier, amid the weighty, dark-stained suite of dining room furniture, wer were eating my mother’s pot roast…” (108).

This line struck a chord, probably because so many of us are thinking these days about the privatization, corporatization, and monetization of public life today, and the way this phenomenon is degrading not just the public institutions we hold dear and even ones we might hold less dear –schools, universities & academic research, science, the judiciary, parks, museums, roadways, hospitals, electoral politics, journalism, prisons, and even, ironically, the very “free market” whose virtues and interests privatization is intended to advance. I don’t think it leaves anything untouched, even little unimportant things including, as I have argued elsewhere, Jewish Studies, new Jewish culture, and Israeli politics.

It’s for this reason that I am less invested in critiques of the State and governmentality. I understand why it exercised Arendt or Foucault. But in our current condition, State and governmentality represent the lesser of two evils. Roth’s Plot Against America is, among other things, a paean to Roosevelt, the New Deal, and the civic virtues of the public state, and the way that oppositional forces can, unforeseen or not, flip those virtues on a dime.

It’s not that I think that “money is the root of all evil.” But there are different kinds of money, public and private, and different kinds of pools where money collects, some of which are more and some of which are less public-minded. What I think Occupy Wall Street was able to do was to develop an aversion to big private money slipping in with a controlling interest in all things affecting our public life.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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