America’s Hobbesian Nightmare

By Adam Campbell

“The condition of man… is a condition of war of everyone against everyone” – Thomas Hobbes.

America has begun to resemble a Hobbesian nightmare. A state of perpetual conflict. The long descent into tribalism and rage – the atomization of the American people – has served to produce an enormous pile of tinder – and today’s election threatens to provide the spark.

The American state – once a stable feature of Western prominence and ambition; the sine qua non of Western democracy – is convulsed by fear, loathing and domestic chaos. The sight of right-wing militiamen patrolling the street with semi-automatic rifles; the wholesale destruction of property by left-wing activists. All is played out against a backdrop of alienation and widespread social despair. The rate of misery and self-destruction in America is beyond all decent contemplation. It is difficult to disagree with Chris Hedges summary of modern America as the ‘dance macabre,’ where ‘as the despair mounts, so will acts of self-immolation.’

The choice being offered at this election is an insult. Two men without the intellectual calibre –  or the political will – to enact real and far-reaching change. The death of nuance in electoral coverage has wrought the cheap and tawdry spectacle being played out before us. A world where personality, and not policy, is paramount. One is reminded of Orwell’s two-minute hate. Emmanuel Goldstein – the ugly, leering enemy of INSOC and the people – transmogrified into the face of Trump or Biden and projected into the homes of partisan voters via satellite TV. Rage is the order of the day. It colours every comment and decision. It stalks every protest and demonstration. And it finds its most potent expression in the lazy, dichotomized media of Fox news and CNN. The US writer and journalist Matt Taibbi pithily sums up the state of political news in America: ‘here is packaged anger, just for you.’ 

The pallid and anaemic parties presented at this election have no answer to America’s social and cultural decline. The Democratic party, full of brio and self-assurance, has no conception of life in the wastelands of America’s former industrial base.  The pale and earnest faces of A-List celebrity – draped in rainbow flags and noble sentiment – have replaced any serious consideration of social and economic justice. Biden’s fashionable activism cannot begin to address the anomie and despair of America’s poor, nor should we expect it to. The party of NAFTA and mass incarceration – the party of military adventurism – has long since abandoned any pretence of working-class solidarity.

Across the isle of (largely manufactured) division – a demagogue stands ready to mop up those misplaced hopes. The hubris and self-delusion of the Trump campaign – almost funny in its absurdity – is itself the symptom of years of incompetence and betrayal. The dark charisma of the American right is primed and ready to take advantage. Chomsky wrote as early as 2010 that ‘if somebody comes along who is charismatic this country is in real trouble because of the frustration, disillusionment, the justified anger, and the absence of any coherent response.’ The political class did not listen.  

The often haughty and self-satisfied attitude of Scottish liberals – cossetted from the worst effects of American decline – ought not to judge too readily. For Americans are permitted just one of two options at this election – they are granted but one opinion to offset the damage wreaked by successive administrations. It is a choice devoid of meaning. The outcome of today’s election will not provide the sorts of radical transformation that America so desperately requires. To pretend otherwise – to cleave to the belief that the Democrats can restore American stability – is folly.

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