Monday, 26 September 2011

AMERICA'S BEST and WORST TRAITS: Part II - social and cultural aspects

Co-optation is the theme of my synoptic perspective on  "America's Best and Worst Traits" as they pertain  to the social structure and culture. One of the successes of American-style capitalism has been its remarkable ability to remain as dynamic as the social and cultural movements, and for many business people to view counterculture as a potential ally rather than an enemy, as a tool for selling products more readily rather than an obstacle to commerce.

Given that the social and cultural trends that have been the most dynamic invariably come from the middle class or aspire toward upward mobility, 'identity social movements' and counterculture trends are for the most part expressions of middle class values that are outside the institutional mainstream. Hence, co-optation by the mainstream is essential to maintain the much-desired 'middle class consensus'. In the absence of social and cultural co-optation, political/societal consensus and trendy successful consumerism could not have been possible; both catalysts in the political economy.

'Identity social movements' are those with unique characteristics such as ethnic, race, religion, gender/sex, and class-based groups having a consciousness of separateness, but  endeavoring to fit into the broader society by having its voice heard and rights constitutionally protected. The civil rights and  women's rights movements are the best examples of 'identity movements' co-optation that have evolved, at least segments of these movements, from radical origins into the mainstream of the social milieu, from leftist ideological/political positions to conservative.

In the field of cultural co-optation the most blatant examples are the use of otherwise radical counter-culture music used in advertisements to promote products by manipulating and redirecting cultural trends toward a narcissistic course that has been at the core of American society and exported to the world. The culture of narcissism is inexorably linked to the market economy that largely determines the political system and social structure, thus the culture of narcissism is a manifestation of hedonistic egoism that society values and promotes.

The dialectic of social and cultural change is invariably linked to grassroots forces trying to find expression within the institutional mainstream. The success of the American political economy is largely the result of the success of mainstream institutions to co-opt 'identity movements' and grass roots cultural trends/movements.

The social structure of a country reflects its political economy, where it has been and where it is headed. Historically in the case of the US, social class has always been based on 'identity movements', especially ethnicity and race, but with the post-WWII middle class expansion the country developed the world's most dynamic middle class and projected the image that class transcends 'identity movement'; the reality of course is a different matter.

In July 2008, several months after the economic crisis erupted in the US, the Pew Research Center crafted a study arguing that the middle class was divided into four groups; 35% the upper middle class, 25% the satisfied middle class, 23% the anxious middle and 17% the struggling middle. The Pew study was just a palatable way to say that 40% of the American middle class is disappearing. Scholarly studies demonstrate without any ambiguity that the American middle class has in fact been shrinking in size and income levels in the last 30 years, and it has taken a turn for the worst in the last four years.Within that broader middle class divided into four groups as Pew contends, 'identity movements' remain at the bottom of the social ladder.

The global recession of 2008-present has accounted for what I would generically label the widespread sentiment of an anxious middle class regardless of whether the individual is in the top or bottom layer of the social strata. In short, the American social fabric so finely woven owing to an expanding economy throughout the 20th century is gradually coming unglued. The best thing about America's social structure is that any person of any race, ethnicity, religious or social background can still feel that it is possible to realize the American Dream of  enjoying a middle class life. Identity movement can have the hope for integration into the mainstream, although for the majority within identity movements the 'American Dream' remains just a dream.

That fewer people are able to realize the American Dream is a reflection of the political economy as it has evolved into debt-ridden welfare capitalism. The result is that one in four New Yorkers, most belonging to 'identity movements', live below poverty level; this result as updated by the Bloomberg administration and not as defined by the federal government in 1969. Officially, there are 46 million Americans living below poverty, but unofficially the number is much larger because many are not counted as they live in parks and other facilities where the census does not reach them. 

As America's demographics change and the minorities belonging to identity movements become the majority in the 20th century, the social structure may reflect a race/ethnicity bias; not to the degree of pre-Civil rights era, but certainly not the kind of social structure one would expect of a pluralistic society that promises upper social mobility based on merit, but delivers a social class structure based on heredity.

Many non-Western scholars, journalists and politicians have complained for decades that America has been able to maintain its social structure at the expense of the rest of the world, in part because the US attracts the best students and best talent from doctors to engineers in a process called 'brain drain'. For example, Mexico pays to train its best doctors, but they leave for the US for better pay. Russia educates the best scientists, but the US lures them with higher pay.

The social structure is in a constant state of renewal because the best talent from around the world works in the US and benefits the society, keeping it competitive and on the cutting edge of new scientific and technological developments. If the political economy evolves to undercut the middle class social structure and an increasing percentage of people feel that they are 'outsiders' unconnected to the institutional mainstream, does this entail social discontinuity in the course of the 21st century?

Culture is determined by many factors from political and religious to geography to foods people eat, music and dance, and clothes they wear. Moreover, culture is influenced more by hard times or chronic downturn of the economy impacting a large segment of the population as was the case in the US during the 1930s, than it is by affluent times that impact a smaller number of people as was the case in the 1920s. Everything from music to literature is impacted by the prevailing socioeconomic and political trends that rest on existing cultural layers and change to reflect the ever-changing present.

The US has had enjoyed a resounding success commercializing and selling its culture and its cultural values to the rest of the world in the last half century or so. One of those success stories has been Hollywood-style 'escapist entertainment' that the rest of the world has been buying and trying to emulate. Whether it comes from Hollywood, the web or mass entertainment media, is 'escapist entertainment' the essence of America's mass culture appealing to hedonistic and egoistic proclivities of the middle class?

What is the essence of culture in America, a country with a long history of identity movements, with people from the entire world and cultural influences reflected in everything from food to values. Is American culture divided by region, West coast vs. East coast, Midwest v. South, urban vs. rural; or is it divided by neighborhoods where there are large concentrations of identity social movements? Is American culture determined by race, ethnicity, and class, or has it been so commercialized and homogenized that the only thing that matters is what is projected among large masses of people, and how it is received?

Is American culture embodied in the NRA and NASCAR, the Dukes of Hazzards and muscle cars, football and Country music, boxing and Blues music, Thanksgiving and fast food restaurants, mall shopping and TV shopping networks, Broadway theater and ballet, county fairs, and church festivals, colleges and business social clubs? Do all of these have anything in common, or are there indeed many Americas within the US as some scholars of humanities and social science have been arguing? If indeed US support for the fine arts is much lower than it is in most other advanced and even semi-developed nations, is this a sign that only commercial cash-value hedonistic mass culture must and will prevail in America?

And what does it say about US culture that attracts the best talent from around the world, but the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has a shrinking budget largely because southern conservative politicians feel threatened by the questionable value of NEA-sponsored programs that tend to appeal to East-coast liberals? And if the US did not have generous tax deductions for wealthy individuals and corporations who contribute to the arts would the US be able to maintain a top-tier fine arts culture for the upper middle class? Would American culture, as magnificent as it is in its various forms, enjoy such preeminence if the society did not attract the world's best talent, as did Rome in its glory days, and if it did not enjoy economic affluence?

American culture in all its forms and varieties is headed toward the mass marketing meat grinder of video-game world where everything from motion pictures to literature is designed to conform to that mass marketing cash-value model. While the great authors of the 19th and 20th century criticizing the hypocrisy of American 'puritanism' and conservatism are no longer permitted to raise their heads unless it is in the form of some inane comedy show that secures corporate sponsors, the US still has the largest and best market for dissident artistic and literary voices that find their way in tiny trendy markets.

If Edith Wharton and Theodore Dreiser had difficulty with social class and social mobility themes expressing their version of identity social movements, so do authors of today. Nevertheless, American culture still permits the expression of all voices to be heard and those that a segment of society deems meritorious rise above the rest. If such dissident voices can be commercialized and used to sell a product/service or political cause, then they move into the mainstream.

Deconstructing the mainstream definition of the norm in American culture is always a possibility and that in itself is wonderful for the continuation of cultural diffusion that feeds culture. If artists and writers are still able to use their talents creatively to capture the public's imagination about the immoral corporate world that defines society and about the absence of moral compass in a society hypocritically obsessed with conformity for the sake of 'security', then there is hope after all for a better tomorrow. Even more significant, if such artistic and literary works make their way around the world, then escapist sex-and-violence entertainment is not America's only cultural export, even though it is the largest and most profitable.

If a segment of the performing arts from arts - jazz, country, bluegrass, and blues - makes its way around the world, then that too dispels the myth of monolithic American culture, and the assumption that cultural expression of identity movements is doomed to remain on the fringes. It is true that authentic performing arts, which in recent years include everything from extreme break dancing to hip-hop and rap music, become commercialized and thus lose their intended purpose, authenticity and much of their originality and creative aspects in the process of commercial co-optation. Nevertheless, that such performing arts with grass roots origins reflecting identity movements provide a creative outlet and further stimulate cultural diffusion is another positive result of American culture.

As long as the institutional mainstream will have the ability to co-opt identity social movements and cultural trends, society will remain strong and dynamic; failure to successfully co-opt will result in the gradual waning of the entire system and it will be the nascent stage of social discontinuity.

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