The Other Culture War: The Ego and the Commons

Little does he grasp of the larger picture. But “The Donald” has now Trumpeted into official politics the already well established corrupt values embedded in the Era of the Ego. At the same time, he delights in embodying all of the core resentments and prejudices of the dispossessed U.S. white male. This, despite his own inherited privileges of wealth and power.

Of course, it is about so much more than the mere crass expressions of a narcissistic and almost certainly sociopathic personality, in way over his head but undeterred. It is about the much deeper sociopathic nature of the wielding of corporate wealth to control a nation.

Trump exploits the mass culture of the ego that he personifies. He is the impetuous vocal vessel for the deep ideology that serves the financialization of the economy and all its catastrophic consequences. That ideology of personal selfishness as the measure of self-worth is a dominant cultural diversion for many working Americans.

The cult of the ego distracts many people from recognizing the violation of their own interests by a political system that serve wealth, not people. It incites and exploits diverse fears and prejudices indiscriminately, while justifying national economic policies that give to the rich and steal from everyone else.

But then, most presidential candidates are agents (and beneficiaries) of the wealthy, yet claim to be advocates for their victims – think HRC. The apparent exception is Bernie Sanders, whose clear consistent progressive positions Hillary is forced to imitate.

Trump and Sanders have been portrayed in the mass media as both drawing upon the anger and frustration of large segments of working Americans. That is partly true. But there is a huge difference: authenticity.

Trump represents the cult of the ego, the ideology of extreme individualism. He exploits ethnic and class differences for his own political and economic gain. His persona and his practices are profoundly inauthentic. He has no moral center.

Sanders has a decades-long track record of consistently fighting for civil and human rights against prevalent powers and prejudices. Trump’s narcissistic demagoguery plays to the fears and resentments that arise from exclusion and oppression. What most liberals don’t seem to get is that the white working class is oppressed too, if not nearly so severely as Blacks and Latinos.

White working class men have lost privileges from which Blacks and Latinos have been excluded from the start. Sanders’ New Deal type proposals and programs respond to the actual and increasingly extreme inequalities that Trump’s vision of “winners” and “losers” extols. Trump’s is a fetish of pure personal power. “You’re fired!”

The Cult of the Ego has a deep function in keeping individuals bound to a system that exploits them, even at higher levels of material success. The end-game of the endless-growth economic juggernaut involves a very common pathological response to failure. If the inequities of that system make one a victim, the victim is controlled by his/her internalizing the system failure as personal failure.

Belief in one’s own failure as the cause of one’s problems clinches control by the elites. Anger is displaced onto scapegoated minorities. The oldest trick in the book of confidence men is diversion. The more scapegoats can be invoked, the easier it is to pick the pocket of the nation.

The core psychological problem built into plunder capital and its ecological destruction is that classic pattern of psychopathology: denial and projection. Blame poverty on the poor. Never mind so many were once hard working middle class servants of the system. Blame unemployment on the immigrants who take the jobs that citizens refuse to do. Blame outsourcing on “overpaid” American workers, not on the exploitation of Chinese or Mexican workers by globalized corporations. The culpability of the corporate elite is denied; the problems of America are projected onto the victimized populations, especially Blacks, Mexicans, foreigners, and immigrants. Orange may be the new Black, but Muslims are the new “niggers.”

This destructive end-game has seduced a growing proportion of the U.S. population for decades. The so-called “Global Economy” is locked into a death dance with all living earth systems, including the climate and humanity itself. Yet, Sanders’ popularity demonstrates that the people, when given the obvious alternative explanation, recognize the nature of the unfair hierarchy that has exploited them.

The Political Cult of Ego

Trump epitomizes the pathology of denial and projection, both of which are generously scattered within most of his speeches and interviews. The pattern is clear. An embarrassing Trump behavior or incoherent insult is revealed in the press; Trump flatly denies the facts, even if videotaped. Or, he doubles down. Then he projects ‘guilt’ onto, and vilifies those who may question his lies – i.e., the press.

Trump appears to be congenitally incapable of recognizing any social blunder or ethical error he has made, and cannot grasp the core dishonesty each represents. He may be able to retain his inherited wealth via sleazy deals and strategic bankruptcies. But he does not understand the social world beyond the requirements of the confidence game. Meanwhile, the corporate media pander to his sensationalist swagger and tiptoe around his direct insults to reporters.

But the point of what should be a national political embarrassment is that it is all taken in stride in the U.S., especially by the corporate mass media. It seems as if such gross egotism and megalomania were simply routine, or even acceptable at all. But that is because it is a core component of the American Cult of the Ego constantly promoted by the corporate media. Republicans issue mild rebukes to Trump’s overtly racist utterances, while invoking party unity to support him anyway. Their hypocrisy is thicker than their submissiveness to the corporate and financial elites. No real conservative could tolerate the Drumph.

Such arrogance as Trump displays is not all that uncommon. It is found throughout the culture, because it is part of the corporate promotion of outlandish images of personal independence and superiority. Those images drive consumer behavior, professional self-importance, and political conceit. They also conveniently distract the population from the growing crises at the end of the industrial era and the ultimate crisis the fossil-fueled economy has caused: climate collapse and all the consequent chaos that has already begun.

In some ways, the assertion of the ego over facts, no matter how strong the evidence, is an icon of U.S. economic culture. Marketing stimulates and exploits the insecurities of the ego by its images of aspirational power and artificial beauty. Winning by any means necessary is extoled. The “art of the deal” is actually the art of being unscrupulous and getting away with it.

In American economic culture, “winning” is a higher value than ethics, fair play, or honesty. “Business ethics” is proudly ridiculed as an oxymoron. It no longer matters how one has accumulated wealth, as long as it is demonstrable. Conscience is not a factor. The dominant question seems to be whether Trump is as wealthy as he claims – as if that would somehow justify everything.

What does the ego have to do with the financialization of the economy? Everything. The greed of the financial elite epitomizes the triumph of the ego. The engine that drives economic growth and capital accumulation is consumer demand. Hedge-fund managers and stock brokers expect quarterly reports to support ever increasing stock prices. This puts a great deal of pressure on management to improve output and efficiency. Yet industrial capacity has long outstripped consumers’ needs. So, false aspirations and desires have to be created to support expanding consumer demand. Status anxiety and the insecure ego, massaged by marketing, drive over-consumption.

Marketing Madness

The business of marketing has been working on this track of culture change for a long time. Edward Bernays ushered in the fields of public relations and advertising on the backs of Freud’s psychoanalysis and Gustave Le Bon’s theories of crowd psychology.[1] He helped Woodrow Wilson with propaganda efforts in World War I. It was clear to Bernays that the people must be manipulated psychologically if leaders were to exert effective control. His concept of the “engineering of consent” still reaches into politics as well as commerce.

The history of American marketing and advertising, not to mention political propaganda, is replete with examples of the influence of Bernays and Walter Lippmann.[2] Bernays was instrumental in the 1920s campaign to get American women to smoke cigarettes by playing to their desire to be less restricted by male enforced rules. The manufacturing of consent during the booming economic bubble leading up to the Great Depression drove lavish consumption, mostly by the new rich. It was surpassed only by the explosive use of The Image in the 1950s and 1960s with the advent of television advertising and the creation of pseudo-events that become “news” in order to promote the growth of many enterprises.[3]

The emergence of the dissatisfied ego and its anxiety became an essential marketing mechanism in an increasingly alienating industrial society. Its manipulation provided vast opportunities to manufacture desires to feed mass consumption. Demonstrating status by one’s purchases was an ideal way to drive consumption to keep pace with the productive capacity of industry.

But the very process of rationalizing production has so suppressed wages and has outsourced so many jobs that the middle class has become impoverished. The result has been to encourage further debt to sustain consumption. Hence, the burden of credit-card debt and the Bankster-engineered housing bubble and financial crash of 2008. The inherent waste of this system of endless economic growth not only feeds unsustainable debt, but drives the climate destabilization that will be its undoing.

Enclosing the Commons and the New Culture War

The old Culture Wars were about liberal and conservative values related to standards of individual behavior, mostly in public. There always was a tension between traditional values of conservative personal behavior and the “American Individualism” that is proclaimed the essence of American mass culture. Traditional inhibitions and prejudices against sexual deviation and ethnic groups other than the mythic “Real Americans” – white Anglo-Saxon Protestants – drove resentment of social and demographic change.

That tension continues to play out in the 2016 election cycle, though not directly recognized in debates. The resentments and fears encouraged and aggravated by Donald Trump are themselves misdirected anger at a system that excludes the population from genuine participation. The financialization of the economy has been realized by squeezing the economic participation of as many people as possible, via wage suppression, employment outsourcing, and increased prices. It also involves the confiscation of the nation’s wealth – the commonwealth – by expanding the debt-driven economy.

The foreclosures have not only confiscated the homes of millions of Americans, while the Fed and Treasury conspired to bail out the banks that caused the crash. The same Wall Street financial elite that funds the payday loan extortionists have been rapidly buying up foreclosed homes across the nation. The essential elements of the economy itself have been “enclosed” by the super-rich with the assistance of the lobbied congress. Unlike central banks in other countries, the Fed has not required bailed-out banks to help out victimized home owners. These “winners” get a free ride while the economic culture’s “losers” are vilified for taking on too much debt.

The new culture war has only just begun. It is reflected in the widespread recognition that the population is being exploited in new ways and to new extremes. People know that the wealth of the nation is being enclosed by the corporate state. It is reflected in the surging popularity of the only presidential candidate to characterize it accurately, as well as in the rise of the narcissistic demagogue.

Trump exploits the diffuse fear, anger, and resentment of the mostly white male base of the Tea Party dominated Republican base. In stark contrast, Sanders points to the institutional sources of the destruction of democracy by the impoverishment of both the political process and the population. Clinton attempts to play to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party by promising vague “liberal” policies, while staying the course of the corporate state.

The new culture war is being fought over control of the disposition of the material assets of the nation, “the commons.” Political control of the environment and natural resources that feed the economic growth system determine everyday lives of the American people.  The threat to public health and the viability of communities by plunder capital has reached a tipping point. Resistance to that threat takes the form of a battle for community control of “the commons” versus the economic elitism exercised by authority of the corporate state.

Bernie Sanders calls for a “political revolution” to democratize the political process. He would reestablish the controls over plunder capitalism that had been put in place by the New Deal after the Great Depression. But the new culture war is also about crass individualism (as a cover for corporate exploitation) versus community interdependence.

The Sanders presidential candidacy has at least brought the new culture war to the forefront of political discussion. But that was always a long shot, even as his popularity surged, due to the undemocratic hierarchy of the Democratic Party. Whether HRC or The Donald capture the presidency, the real battle will be fought in communities all across the nation.

The reassertion of community sovereignty will be a crucial factor, but not only in the new culture war. It will determine whether the climate crisis that is upon us can be mitigated. Municipalities are way ahead of federal politics in responding to the climate crisis. The corporate state is AWOL. Even Bernie’s political revolution would take time to be fully realized. The planet is out of time.

Neither the corporate-statist nor the narcissistic wildcard are particularly interested in the compelling evidence of climate science. Their urgencies are all about personal political power. The battles of the new culture war will be waged in communities everywhere to take the extreme climate actions that can save the people and the planet. They will be fought on the ground, far more than in corporate board rooms or Senate chambers.

[1] Edward Bernays, Propaganda (1928). New York: lg Publishing, 2004.

[2] Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (New York: New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922).

[3] Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image or What Happened to the American Dream (New York: Atheneum, 1962) remains strikingly relevant after more than half a century.

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